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Intellect, Limited
Theatre in Prison: Theory and Practice

Theatre in Prison: Theory and Practice

by Michael Balfour
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From role-plays with street gangs in the USA to Beckett in Brixton; from opera productions with sex offenders to psychodrama with psychopaths, the book will discuss, analyse and reflect on theoretical notions and practical applications of theatre for and with the incarcerated.

Theatre in Prison is a collection of thirteen international essays exploring the rich diversity of innovative drama works in prisons. The book includes an introduction that will present a contextualisation of the prison theatre field. Thereafter, leading practitioners and academics will explore key aspects of practice — problemitising, theorising and describing specific approaches to working with offenders. The book also includes extracts from prison plays, poetry and prisoners writings that offer illustrations and insights into the experience of prison life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841500669
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 05/01/2004
Series: Lives of Great Explorers Ser.
Pages: 206
Product dimensions: 6.75(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael Balfour is chair of the Centre for the Arts in Development Communication at Griffith University, Australia.

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Theatre In Prison

Theory And Practice

By Michael Balfour

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2004 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-903-7


A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison

Craig Haney, Curtis Banks and Philip Zimbardo

The research reported in this chapter [originally published in 1973] was part of a larger project sponsored by the Office of Naval Research which was designed to develop a better understanding of the basic psychological mechanisms underlying human aggression. In this study, Dr. Zimbardo fabricated a simulation of the essential characteristics of a prison environment. From a highly selected group of college students, Dr. Zimbardo randomly assigned half as 'guards' (with all attendant powers) and half as 'prisoners' (under the complete subjugation of the 'guards'). Essentially then, a group of intelligent, 'normal' young men were put into a situation which demanded close contact over a period of several days. There was a well-defined authority/subordinate relationship between 'guards' and 'prisoners.' The 'prison' environment was further manipulated to promote anonymity, depersonalization, and dehumanization among the subjects. The study demonstrates how these variables combine to increase the incidence of aggressive behaviour on the part of the 'guards' and submissive and docile conformity on the part of the 'prisoners.'

Studies such as this one help to identify and isolate the various processes which motivate aggressive/submissive behaviour within a 'total institution' such as a prison. The Navy and Marine Corps have a direct interest in the conclusions drawn from this study in as much as parallels can be made between the forces which operated within Dr. Zimbardo's 'prison' and those which spawn disruptive interpersonal conflict in Naval prisons. More importantly, however, this study identifies some of the conditions which are likely to promote unrest when men are placed in situations which demand close contact for protracted periods of time. Such research increases the Navy's capability to develop effective training designs to eliminate conditions which elicit counter-productive conflict.


After he had spent four years in a Siberian prison the great Russian novelist Dostoevsky commented surprisingly that his time in prison had created in him a deep optimism about the ultimate future of mankind because, as he put it, if man could survive the horrors of prison life he must surely be a 'creature who could withstand anything.' The cruel irony which Dostoevsky overlooked is that the reality of prison bears witness not only to the resiliency and adaptiveness of the men who tolerate life within its walls, but as well to the 'ingenuity' and tenacity of those who devised and still maintain our correctional and reformatory systems.

Nevertheless, in the century which has passed since Dostoevsky's imprisonment, little has changed to render the main thrust of his statement less relevant. Although we have passed through periods of enlightened humanitarian reform, in which physical conditions within prisons have improved somewhat, and the rhetoric of rehabilitation has replaced the language of punitive incarceration, the social institution of prison has continued to fail. On purely pragmatic grounds, there is substantial evidence that prisons really neither 'rehabilitate' nor act as a deterrent to future crime in America, recidivism rates upwards of seventy-five per cent speak quite decisively to these criteria. And, to perpetuate what is also an economic failure, American taxpayers alone must provide an expenditure for 'corrections' of 1.6 billion dollars annually. On humanitarian grounds as well, prisons have failed: our mass media are increasingly filled with accounts of atrocities committed daily, man against man, in reaction to the penal system or in the name of it. The experience of prison creates undeniably, almost to the point of cliché, an intense hatred and disrespect in most inmates for the authority and the established order of society into which they will eventually return. And the toll it takes in the deterioration of human spirit for those who must administer it, as well as for those upon whom it is inflicted, is incalculable.

Attempts to provide an explanation of the deplorable condition of our penal system and its dehumanizing effects upon prisoners and guards, often focus upon what might be called the dispositional hypothesis. While this explanation is rarely expressed explicitly, it is central to a prevalent non-conscious ideology: that the state of the social institution of prison is due to the 'nature' of the people who administrate it, or the 'nature' of the people who populate it, or both. That is, a major contributing cause to despicable conditions, violence, brutality, dehumanization and degradation existing within any prison can be traced to some innate or acquired characteristic of the correctional and inmate population. Thus on the one hand, there is the contention that violence and brutality exist within prison because guards are sadistic, uneducated, and insensitive people! It is the 'guard mentality,' a unique syndrome of negative traits which they bring into the situation, that engenders the inhumane treatment of prisoners. On the other hand, there is the argument that prison violence and brutality are the logical and predictable results of the involuntary confinement of a collective of individuals whose life histories are, by definition, characterized by disregard for law, order and social convention and a concurrent propensity for impulsivity and aggression. In seeming logic, it follows that these individuals, having proven themselves incapable of functioning satisfactorily in the 'normal' structure of society, cannot do so either inside the structure provided by prisons. To control such men, the argument continues, whose basic orientation to any conflict situation is to react physical power or deception, force must be met with force, and a certain number of violent encounters must be expected and tolerated by the public.

The dispositional hypothesis has been embraced by the proponents of the prison status quo (blaming conditions on the evil in the prisoners), as well as by its critics (attributing the evil to guards and staff with their motives and deficient personality structures). The appealing simplicity of this proposition localizes the source of prison riots, recidivism and corruption in these 'bad seeds' and not in the conditions of the 'prison soil'. Such an analysis directs attention away from the complex matrix of social, economic and political forces that combine to make prisons what they are – and that would require complex, expensive, revolutionary actions to bring about any meaningful change. Instead, rioting prisoners are identified, punished, transferred to maximum security institutions or shot, outside agitators sought, and corrupt officials suspended – while the system itself goes on essentially unchanged, its basic structure unexamined and unchallenged.

However, the dispositional hypothesis cannot be critically evaluated directly through observation in existing prison settings, because such naturalistic observation necessarily confounds the acute effects of the environment with the chronic characteristics of the inmate and populations. To separate the effects of the prison environment per se from those attributable to a priori dispositions of its inhabitants requires a research strategy in which a 'new' prison is constructed, comparable in its fundamental social-psychological milieu to existing prison systems, but entirely populated by individuals who are undifferentiated in all essential dimensions from the rest of society.

Such was the approach taken in the present empirical study, namely, to create a prison-like situation in which the guards and inmates were initially comparable and characterized as being 'normal-average', and then to observe the patterns of behaviour which resulted, as well as the cognitive, emotional and attitudinal reactions which emerged. Thus, we began our experiment with a sample of individuals who were in the normal range of the general population on a variety of dimensions we were able to measure. Half were randomly assigned to the role of 'prisoner' the others to that of 'guard', neither group having any history crime, emotional disability, physical handicap or even intellectual or social disadvantage.

The environment created was that of a 'mock' prison which physically constrained the prisoners in barred cells and psychologically conveyed the sense of imprisonment to all participants. Our intention was not to create a literal simulation of an American prison, but rather a functional representation of one. For ethical, moral and pragmatic reasons we could not detain our subjects for extended or indefinite periods of time, we could not exercise the threat and promise of severe physical punishment, we could not allow homosexual or racist practices to flourish, nor could we duplicate certain other specific aspects of prison life. Nevertheless, we believed that we could create a situation of sufficient mundane realism to allow the role-playing participants to go beyond the superficial demands of their assignment into the deep structure of the characters they represented. To do so, we established functional equivalents for the activities and experiences of actual prison life which were expected to produce qualitatively similar psychological reactions in our subjects – feelings of power and powerlessness, of control and oppression, of satisfaction and frustration, of arbitrary rule resistance to authority, of status and anonymity, of machismo emasculation. In the conventional terminology of experimental psychology, we first identified a number of relevant conceptual variables through analysis of existing prison situations, then designed a setting in which these variables were operationalized. No specific hypothesis were advanced other than the general one that assignment to the treatment of 'guard', or 'prisoner' would result in significantly different reactions on behavioural measures of interaction, emotional measures of mood state and pathology, attitudes toward self, as well as indices of coping and adaptation to this novel situation. What follows is a discussion of how we created and peopled our prison, what we observed, what our subjects reported, and finally, what we can conclude about the nature of the prison environment and the psychology of imprisonment which can account for the failure of our prisons.



The effects of playing the role of 'guard' or 'prisoner' were in the context of an experimental simulation of a prison environment. The research design was a relatively simple one, involving only a single treatment variable, the random assignment to either 'guard' or 'prisoner' condition. These roles were enacted over an extended period of time (nearly one week) within an environment that was physically constructed to resemble a prison. Central to methodology of creating and maintaining a psychological state of imprisonment was the functional simulation of significant properties of 'real prison life' (established through information from former inmates, correctional personnel and texts).

The 'guards' were free within certain limits to implement the procedures of induction into the prison setting and maintenance of custodial retention of the 'prisoners'. These inmates, having voluntarily submitted to the conditions of this total institution in which they now lived, coped in various ways with its stresses and its challenges. The behaviour of both groups of subjects was observed, recorded, and analyzed. The dependent measures were of two general types: 1) transactions between and within each group of subjects, recorded on video and audio tape as well as directly observed; 2) individual reactions on questionnaires, mood inventories, personality tests, daily guard shift reports, and post experimental interviews.


The twenty-two subjects who participated in the experiment were selected from an initial pool of seventy-five respondents, who answered a newspaper advertisement asking male volunteers to participate in a psychological study of 'prison life' in return for payment of $15 per day. Each respondent completed extensive questionnaire concerning his family background, physical mental health history, prior experience and attitudinal propensities with respect to sources of psychopathology (including their involvements in crime). Each respondent also was interviewed by one of two experimenters. Finally, the twenty-four subjects who were judged to be most stable (physically and mentally), most mature, and least involved in anti-social behaviours were selected to participate in the study. On a random basis, half of the subjects were assigned the role of 'guard', half were assigned to the role of 'prisoner'.

The subjects were normal, healthy, male college students who were in the Stanford area during the summer. They were largely of middle-class socio-economic status and Caucasians (with the exception of one Oriental subject). Initially they were strangers toeach other, a selection precaution taken to avoid the disruption of any pre-existing friendship patterns and to mitigate against any transfer into the experimental situation of previously established relationships or patterns of behaviour. This final sample of subjects was administered a battery of psychological tests on the day prior to the start of the simulation, but to avoid any selective bias on the part of the experimenter- observers, scores were not tabulated until the study was completed.

Two subjects who were assigned to be a 'stand-by' in case an additional 'prisoner' was needed were not called, and one assigned to be a 'stand-by' guard decided against participating just before the simulation phase began – thus, our data analysis is based upon ten prisoners and eleven guards in our experimental conditions.


Physical Aspects of the Prison

The prison was built in a thirty-five foot section of a basement corridor in the psychology building at Stanford University. It was partitioned by two fabricated walls; one was fitted with the only entrance door to the cell block and the other contained a small observation screen. Three small cells (6 x 9 ft.) were made from converted laboratory rooms by replacing the usual doors with steel barred, black painted ones and removing all furniture.

A cot (with mattress, sheet and pillow) for each prisoner was the only furniture in the cells. A small closet across from the cells served as a solitary confinement facility; its dimensions were extremely small (2 x 2 x 7 ft.), and it was unlighted.

In addition, several rooms in an adjacent wing of the building were used as guard's quarters (to change in and out of uniform or for rest and relaxation), a bedroom for the 'warden' and 'superintendent', and an interview-testing room. Behind the observation screen at one end of the 'yard' (small enclosed room representing the fenced grounds) was video recording equipment and sufficient space for several observers.

Operational Details

The 'prisoner' subjects remained in the mock-prison for twenty-four hours per day for the duration of the study. Three were arbitrarily assigned to each of the three cells; the others were on stand-by call at their homes. The 'guard' subjects worked on three-man, eight-hour shifts; remaining in the prison environment only during their work shift and going about their usual lives at other times.

Role Instructions

All subjects had been told that they would be assigned either the guard or the prisoner role on a completely random basis and all had voluntarily agreed to play either role for $15.00 per day for up to two weeks. They signed a contract guaranteeing a minimally adequate diet, clothing, housing and medical care as well as the financial remuneration in return for their stated 'intention' of serving in the assigned role for the duration of the study.

It was made explicit in the contract that those assigned to be prisoners should expect to be under surveillance (have little or no privacy) and to have some of their basic human rights suspended during their imprisonment, excluding physical abuse. They were given no other information about what to expect nor instructions about behaviour appropriate for a prisoner role. Those actually assigned to this treatment were informed by phone to be available at their place of residence on a given Sunday when we would start the experiment.


Excerpted from Theatre In Prison by Michael Balfour. Copyright © 2004 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The Contributors
A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison
Philip Zimbardo, Craig Haney and Curtis Banks 
Pathologies of Hope in Drama and Theatre
Baz Kershaw
Play: One Hour in the Semi Open (aka The Rat Run)
From the Stocks to the Stage: Prison Theatre and the Theatre of Prison
James Thompson
The Prosocial Gang
Arnold Goldstein, Barry Glick, Wilma Carthan And Douglas A. Blancero

 Prison Poem
Somebody’s Daughter Theatre: Celebrating Difference with Women in Prison
Maud Clark
The Role of the Camshaft in Offender Rehabilitation
Chris Johnston
Dealing with Drugs
Kate McCoy And Imogen Blood
‘If All the World’s a Stage, Why Did I Get the Worst Parts?’:
Psychodrama with Violent and Sexually Abusive Men
Clark Baim
Prison Transformation in South Africa
Centre For Conflict Resolution
Poem: The True Prison
Ken Saro-Wiwa
Theatre and Ecclecticism: The ‘Tandari’ Experience
Emman Frank Idoko
Real Social Ties?: The Ins and Outs of Making Theatre in Brazilian Prisons
Paul Heritage

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