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The Stanford Prison Experiment

Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez . US. 2015. R. 2 hours 2 minutes. IFC Films. Digital.
Wed., March 20, 2019
Member Passes Accepted
March 20, 2019
7:00 pm

What happens when a college psych study goes shockingly wrong? In this tense, psychological thriller based on the notorious true story, Billy Crudup stars as Stanford University professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who, in 1971, cast 24 student volunteers as prisoners and guards in a simulated jail to examine the source of abusive behavior in the prison system. The results astonished the world, as participants went from middle-class undergrads to drunk-with-power sadists and submissive victims in just a few days. Winner of two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including Best Screenplay, and created with the close participation of Dr. Zimbardo himself, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a chilling, edge-of-your-seat thriller about the dark side of power and the effects of imprisonment. Featuring an extraordinary cast of rising young actors, including Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Michael Angarano, and Thomas Mann.


A (Almost) Half a Century on from The Stanford Prison Experiment… The War on Drugs & Mass Incarceration

Join us immediately after the 7:00 PM screening for a lively and engaging talk and Q&A with Professors Vivian Smith and Andrew Owen. 

Dickens (1842) referred to imprisonment as, “a dreadful punishment,’’ with few being capable of estimating the levels of, “torture and agony,” it inflicts on the suffers; denouncing it as “a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused to stay.”

Now, almost half a century on from The Stanford Prison Experiment, and its findings concerning the effect of prison environments on human attitude and behavior (and also devoid of the Hollywood hyperbole concerning ‘experiments gone wrong’), this discussion will examine what this classic study reveals regarding the implications for the future social and economic well-being of the United States in the era of mass incarceration.

Beginning with the Reagan administration’s strategy to win the war on drugs in the early 1980s, increased punitive legislation has caused a rapid rise in mass incarceration within the United States. By 2014, over 3% of the adult population is under some form of correctional supervision, with 2.2 million incarcerated within prisons and jails. Such forms of law enforcement have depleted communities of the adult population, further exacerbating levels of economic marginalization, initiating what social scientists have referred to as, the school to prison pipeline; a dynamic comparable only to that of the labor camps of Stalin’s Soviet Union (Goffman, 2014). Michelle Alexander (2010) has referred to such patterns of mass incarceration as, “the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement,” with 37 percent of the adult prison population being comprised of African-Americans (Goffman, 2014).


About the Speakers

Vivian C. Smith, Ph.D., is the Chair and Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Cabrini University. A former National Institute of Health/National Institute of Drug Abuse Post-Doctoral Fellow at the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. in New York. She received her doctorate degree in Criminal Justice from Rutgers University, School of Criminal Justice.

Her experience as a National Institute of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse postdoctoral fellow, fostered her passion for collaborative and interdisciplinary research, while grounding her in both quantitative and qualitative methods. Her passion for understanding women’s criminality, has led Smith to publish on issues related to the war on drugs against women. Smith has sought research projects involving females with substance abuse diagnoses and histories of sexual and physical abuse. She was part of a multi-phase women and reentry project, where she collected and analyzed archival data from a women’s prison. She also created and facilitated a reentry survey instrument for women soon to be released from prison and halfway houses. Smith has presented her research at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, American Society of Criminology Conferences, and at the annual meeting for the Society of Study of Social Problems



Andrew Owen received an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Bangor University, Great Britain, and was a fulltime faculty member at Cabrini University. Andrew is also a house manager here at the Colonial.

Andrew’s main areas of interest relate to the social history of censorship within popular culture; analyzing areas related to propaganda, horror, and the societal and cultural dynamics of censorship discourse and practice. Andrew is also interested in the study of humor, especially as it pertains to its usage by subordinated social groups to attack, challenge, or draw attention to the oppressive ideologies and practices of the dominant social group.







Creative pairings of classic, cult, and documentary films with lively introductions by notable figures from the world of science, technology, and medicine.

Science on Screen® is an initiative of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.