Abu Ghraib Prison Experience

6 June 2016

One of the more popular perceptions of civilized society is that man is inherently good. This has been widely popularized by Humanistic Theory. But by the passing of the 20th century to the present, the world’s history has been blighted by various incidences of ethnic cleansing, even violent acts committed  in the name of religion and tales of atrocities during the engagement of war.

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 It is not deficient of lists in its own ‘Hall of Shame’ — Bosnia, Cambodia, Hitler’s genocide, just to name a few which has not only claimed millions of lives, but had been subjected to torture and agonizing pain. The facts do illustrate that while man is capable of altruistic acts, he is also capable of much evil.

For instance, one case for examination is what had happened to the prison guards in the now infamous Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. What should have started as any military operations would have done in a war had ended in deplorable maltreatment against Iraqi prisoners committed by some members of the 372nd Military Police Company of the US Army and CIA.

That which had occurred behind locked doors spilled into the media which expectedly provoked public outrage, doing further damage to the moral standing of America’s war in Iraq. Not a few were shocked, and had asked the same question, ‘how could such a thing have happened?’ or ‘how could these soldiers do such deplorable acts?’

What this kind of question presupposes is the remoteness of such an occurrence. It draws a quick line between ‘them’ (who are cruel) and ‘us’ (more righteous). Were the prison guards at Abu Ghraib, truly a category of their own or were they any different from any ‘normal’ human beings like us?

Sitting comfortably in our own world, it is so much easier to point an accusing finger. But taking stock of the other related events mentioned above brings a picture of two possible polarities of man’s nature. Although it is assuring to assume a ‘not me’ attitude, it is safer to be more cautious. The issue therefore lies not on the argument of whether man is intrinsically good or wicked, but to examine the factors which brings about or influences those resulting on either of these opposing behaviours.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE)

In 1971, social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo headed an experiment at Stanford University in which it recreated a prison scenario inside the campus. It recruited students who were subjected through a battery of psychological tests to ensure they were mentally and emotionally fit and eliminate any occurrence of participation by some who possess a history of abnormal behaviour. The evaluation process is a crucial part in the whole progression of the study to help determine its success.

The students were then randomly assigned either as prisoners or guards. Those assigned as prisoners were rounded up from their homes and were sent to Zimbardo’s ‘prison’. As soon as the students arrived, they were stripped naked, made to wear prisoner’s gown without any underclothes, a bolted heavy chain was bound in their right ankle to ‘degrade’ prisoners (P. Zimbardo. “How Good People Turn Evil”) and create a feeling of vulnerability and covered their heads with stockings instead of being shaved.

They were confined inside the simulated prison house under the custody of students who were assigned as ‘prison-guards’. In turn, the ‘guards’ were assigned to wear khaki uniforms, a billy club as a weapon and large sunglasses which conveniently hid their emotions.

The experiment was supposed to be conducted for fourteen days but was aborted upon the 6th day. In just a few days, behavioural changes took place among the two set of groups. The ‘guards’ took into their roles and began to abuse their fellow student-prisoners. The dehumanizing treatment towards prisoners brought on depression and emotional breakdown. Even after the experiment, the after-effects of the prison simulation had continued to badly affect the participants.

Through this particular study, Zimbardo came into the conclusion that people can easily take on the roles in which they are assigned given the right set of circumstances. As for the prison guards, even intelligent normal persons who knew between right and wrong can turn into ‘monsters’, capable of sadistic acts and creative in inventing harm towards fellow human beings.

Abu Ghraib Prison

The SPE was regarded as highly unethical due to the mental and emotional damage it had done against its participants. Nevertheless, the gravity of its findings cannot be ignored, much more with the outrage in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. A parallel effect on Zimbardo’s experiment and what occurred at the Abu Ghraib Prison can well explain, but not excuse the grave misconducts. It contained similar ingredients that stimulated the aggressive behaviour by prison guards against Iraqi inmates. What has started out as a moral path from 9/11 to protect innocent lives that has been threatened by terrorist attacks had ended up in moral depravity at Abu Grhraib.

The US Army had rounded up purported terrorists or suspected supporters but which 90% had been found innocent (Banbury. “Rummy’s Scapegoat”). Testimonies of those who survived as well as the incriminating pictures taken while abuses had been committed had revealed occurrence of tying and dragging prisoners, stepping upon wounded body parts, electrocution, being bitten by venomous snakes, forcing prisoners to sexual acts or sodomization, and their bodies were subjected to human wastes (Zernike. “Detainees Depict Abuses by Guard in Prison in Iraq”). There were other kinds of abuses of which many were perplexed on what had happened to the prison guards at Abu Ghraib which resulted in their moral disintegration.

SPE in Relation to Abuse in Abu Ghraib

In his book, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, Zimbardo draws an explanation at Abu Ghraib, pointing the striking similarities between the situational factors present at SPE which were also dangerously present at Abu Ghraib: cramped space, insufficient food, unclean surroundings.

The absence of rules at Abu Ghraib also occurred at SPE in which prison guards were left on their own to invent their own rules to impose authority. The guards’ abusive behaviours became more intense after rebellion by the prisoners. As punitive acts escalated, Zimbardo recounted that they never spoke against these guards and caused them to keep on with their brutality. Zimbardo uses this to show and stress the importance of doing interventions to discontinue the progression of violent acts.

Various psychological processes were overlapping at Abu Ghraib that had been proven fatal by research studies already conducted. These are the surrounding conditions of the environment, the power and influence of authority, the need to conform as the key conditions — the ‘bad barrel’ as Zimbardo would describe. A common pitfall had been to focus on the ‘rotten apples’ inside the bad barrel, instead of implementing interventions that will fix the bad barrel which are, the influencing factors that induce or help promote violent actions.

If acts of violence could start in progression, similarly do good and positive behaviours. Developing altruism in our society can be achieved by influencing and training individuals towards taking small unselfish and helpful steps. There is a higher degree of possibility that those who cooperated to do something small will be more expected to take bigger steps. Model figures also provide a big influence.

Zimbardo’s study surely commands attention. It is an attention which should go beyond honour and applause. It commands practical application from day to day living such as child-rearing to government policies that will redefine the system (the barrel) in which would hinder the repetition of these mistakes.


1.      Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil. New

York: Random House.

2.      Banbury, J. (2008). Rummy’s Scapegoat. Retrieved September 26, 2008, from


Web site: http://dir.salon.com/story/books/int/2005/11/10/karpinski/index.html

3.      Zernike, K. (12 January 2005). “Detainees Depict Abuses by Guard in Prison in

Iraq”. New York Times


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