Lucifer Effect and the Stanford Experiment: How to Make a Better Penal System

The Stanford Experiment is a world-famous experiment conducted by Stanford students and researchers. This team was led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D. They embarked on a journey to determine the psychological effects of being a prisoner as well as a prison guard. The study was supposed to run for two weeks but the proponents of the said experiment decided to end it prematurely in just six days because of the bizarre results that bothered them, including the prisoners and the guards. They could not believe what they saw. It was also difficult to describe the impact of the experiment because it was without precedent. They have uncovered something so strange; they fittingly named the phenomenon the Lucifer Effect. There is a need to make prison facilities better, able to achieve their goals of rehabilitation; but this is easier said than done.

The Stanford Experiment is not only made popular because of the data collected after the study but also because the findings in that said experiment allowed many to understand violent prison behavior such as riots and more importantly the abuse that are perpetrated within prison walls. The lack of transparency and the powerlessness of prisoners to communicate their ordeal add to the urgency of this issue.

The most important impact of the experiment is the realization that is a need to create a better justice system so that people who made mistakes in their lives will learn from them and not be made worse after serving their jail sentence. It is important for those who are studying prison culture and the justice system to take note that the main goal of incarceration is to instill discipline and at the same time rehabilitate the individual so that when he or she completes the mandated sentence for a crime committed, the person who comes out of the said facility is a much better individual as compared to the one who came in.

However, based on the Stanford Experiment and other research findings this is not always the case (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2005) In fact, there are those who contend that petty thieves and first offenders are sent to jails with limited capabilities and lesser appetite to commit a crime, and yet when they were released and went back to the real world, they are already armed not only with a more determined desire to break the law but they also gained contacts and thus able to build a network with criminals in society.

This is a clear indication that prison systems fail to do their jobs. The solution lies in understanding what really occurs within a normal prison cell and prison facility. Based on the experiment, the outsiders had no idea what was going on inside the prison. In other words, the civilian population may think that jails are like temporary dwellings for criminals but this is where most are mistaken. There is a community that exists behind the penitentiary walls. More importantly, there is a prison culture created by the interaction between the prisoners and the guards. The guards feel threatened by the actions of the prisoners and the prisoners feel less than human beings if they are in the presence of the guards. All of these contribute to an environment wherein it is impossible to have positive improvement in the lives of prisoners.

One thing has to be made clear, there is no way that these problems can be solved if the focus is only in training and teaching the professionals, including jail warden, jail officers, and the guards to be more humane in their treatment of prisoners. There is a need to hit two birds with one stone and therefore there is an urgent need to reduce the number of people who are behind bars. According to one report it is impossible to manage correction facilities when there is overcrowding (Freeman, 1999). Excellent prison management is key to create a safe place for prisoner and guards and reduce the tension and anxiety within prison wall but if this cannot be assured then there is no way one can begin to develop altruistic behavior among those who are involved.

Overpopulation can be solved by studying alternative ways to correct behavior. Placing someone behind bars is not often the solution to crimes like cheating on taxes and minor crimes that does not necessarily call for spending extended periods in lock-up. There is no need to become a psychologist to understand the kind of trauma that one experiences when separated from their family and spend weeks and months on end behind bars. Aside from creating alternative means of punishment the other solution is to make the justice system more efficient in terms of processing those who are eligible for parole (Jacobson, 2005) There is also a need to look into how politicians try to get elected on the promise of being tough on crime and then demonstrate their sincerity by sending more criminals to jail (Zimbardo, 2010).

Even with a significantly reduced population the Lucifer Effect can still be experienced by both prison guards and inmates because it has something to do with how prison guards and inmates view themselves. There is a need to develop a program that will help prison guards understand that their role is not to become slave masters but partners in rehabilitation of the prisoner. Thus, the guards will not become abusive because it is their primary responsibility to make prisoner lead better lives. The inmates on the other hand must actively pursue the benefits of rehabilitation and they must not think that when they are locked-up there is a need to go to war against the guards. In other words there is a need to transform prison culture but this is easy said than done.

Reducing the Lucifer Effect can also be achieved using technology to efficiently manage penitentiaries (Fairweather & McConville, 2000). There are also those who argue that it is high time to privatize prisons (as cited in Pollock, 1997). With privatization the general public can be assured of having efficient managers and controls that can vastly improve the penal system. This can also help make prison facilities more transparent since the client – in this case the paying public – can demand more accountability measures. Resources must be allocated to the study of prison facilities in order to effectively reduce the number of criminals in society.


Clear, T., G. Cole, & Reisig, M. (2005). American Corrections. Belmont CA: Thomson Higher Education.

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Fairweather, L. & McConville, S. (2000). Prison Architecture: Policy, Design, and Experience. MA: Elsevier.

Freeman, R.M. (1999). Correctional Organization and Management: Public Policy Challenges, Behavior and Structure. MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Jacobson, M. (2005). Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration. New York: New York University Press.

Zimbardo, P. (2010). Stanford Prison Experiment. Web.

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