The Stanford Prison Experiment was a social psychology experiment that focused on the psychological effects of perceived power, particularly the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. It took place at Stanford University by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo and his team. All the “guards” and “prisoners” of the makeshift prison were college students.
Mama gives me a wicker basket and warns me not to let my grubby little hands help themselves. Inside is fresh bread that smells like Mama’s skin, apricot jam like a small sun in a jar, and a batch of golden banana muffins I just know I’ll be shoving into my mouth later.
“Is everything there?” Mama mumbles, eyebrows sliding together in a little V of worry. She fusses with the basket and rearranges its contents one last time before neatly covering it with a plaid towel like the people on our television use for picnics.
Papa stands up from his recliner and wanders over to our sunflower-yellow kitchen. “Did you bake an iron file into that loaf?” He laughs at his own joke When we don’t join him, he wipes away an invisible tear.
He finds it funny that Hunter is away, says, It’ll help him build character, and it’s for science, right? Or whatever psycho-science those people believe in. At least your brother’s getting paid for once in his life, even if it’s just to stand around and look tough. He’ll joke about it even as Mama’s hands flutter at her sides and her face creases. Sometimes I think I could play the xylophone on her forehead wrinkles.
“Don’t forget your coat,” Mama tells me as she ushers me to the front door.
This is our joke. She knows I never leave the house without my raincoat—my very own shield. I grab it from its hook and run my hands over the shiny vinyl. The coat is a bright, cherry red. Too large for me, but Papa says I’ll grow into it. Mama kneels down to help guide my arms into its sleeves since I always end up getting tangled.
Her chapped lips graze the crown of my head. “Remember to kiss Hunter for me. And be good to Papa.”
I nod and say, “Yes, Mama,” even though Hunter would never let his little sister kiss him anymore.
Papa starts up the Impala—red like my raincoat—and it kitten-purrs to life. “Get in, Little. And don’t fill my car with crumbs, for Chrissake.”
I sit by the window and watch the world turn into a blur. It’s like I’m at the county fair carousel with my eyes half-closed, everything soft and pastel, spinning round and round.
Papa drives with one hand on the steering wheel and the other lifting the towel to inspect the contents of the basket. His crooked smile spells mischief.
“Should we make sure everything tastes good?”
“Mama said to take the basket straight to Hunter. She doesn’t trust them to feed him anything that doesn’t come from a World War II tin can.” I parrot her words so he’ll smile at me again. Maybe he’ll even ruffle my hair the way I like, though I’m not really sure what Mama meant.
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
We turn off the highway and head down the long, straight road leading to Hunter’s university. Palm trees flank the drive. They sway like drowsy giants in the slight breeze. Once we’re stopped in the campus parking lot, Papa uses his Swiss Army knife to cut two fat slices of bread and drop generous globs of amber jam on them. While I eat my slice, I swing my feet back and forth a few inches above the car's floor. Sweltering heat slinks through the open windows, and the summer air ripples with the cicada’s song. Still, I don’t take my coat off.
When we’re done, we lick our sticky fingers and repack Hunter’s lunch. Papa circles around the car and opens the door for me. “Hold my hand, Little. We don’t want you getting lost in this place. I swear it’s like a maze.”
Hunter has been studying here for a year, but this is the first time I see his university up close. It’s all pale-yellow sandstone buildings and red tile roofs. The sprawling lawns and arched walkways make me feel small inside—I tighten my raincoat around me and run my hands up and down the vinyl exterior, over and over again.
I think Papa feels small too, even if he won’t admit it. Most times, he grumbles about how Hunter spends his days here, and only ever treats our house like a bed and breakfast. He will lecture Hunter about factory work, honor, and family. Then they’ll fight, and each will storm off in different directions. But in a few hours they’ll have forgotten all about it, going back to talking about football or boasting about the latest animal they caught. Papa always has some comment at the tip of his tongue, but he’s quiet as we cross the bright green lawn hand in hand.
My sneakers squeak against the diamond-patterned floor. I crane my neck, half-convinced the church-like ceiling stretches into the clouds. My eyes devour everything, but Papa leads us straight to the secretary’s office without giving me the chance to scratch the itch of exploration.
A woman with fluffy gray hair and tortoiseshell glasses greets us from behind a heavy desk. Papa plants his elbows on its wooden surface and says, “Grandma, we’re here to visit that damn prison.”
The secretary tuts at him, and I place my hands over my ears the way I’m supposed to whenever he curses.
“Visiting hour isn’t for a while. How about you wait with the rest of the parents and we’ll call for you? The students… er, inmates are having lunch.” Her tone is dry, but she winks at me when Papa isn’t looking. “What a pretty red coat you have.”
I giggle a little and wink in return, all flushed inside. Not everyone gets my need for my raincoat.
Papa heaves a dramatic sigh, as if following the rules is doing Grandma a favor.
“Let’s wait and give him his lunch, or else your Mama will never stop nagging at me.” He takes my hand again and mutters through his teeth, “These people think they’re someone, with their fancy schools and experiments. Kids from my old block fought tooth and nail to stay out of prison. Our Hunter walks into one as a goddamn volunteer. At least he's running the thing, instead of letting someone else order him around.”
We go down a flight of stairs to the bowels of the Stanford County Prison. The whole building has a golden glow and silvery shine, but down here the world is gray and dull. Our steps echo and the air tastes musty and funny, not funny like Saturday morning cartoons, but funny like milk gone sour.
Parents and relatives sit on metal benches in the dim-lit hallway. Their baskets and packages aren’t nearly as pretty as Mama’s.
Someone calls Papa’s name. He lets go of my hand.
The man, one of his football buddies, claps Papa on the back. They start talking about how crazy this whole situation is, Batshit crazy, I thought psychologists were supposed to be rational, but this one built a mock goddamn prison inside his own university department. They clutch their bellies and wheeze with laughter. I recognize that sound from all those evenings they’ve spent on our back porch, drinking beers and reminiscing about when they used to work in the factory instead of owning it. The man offers Papa a brown ciggy that turns their voices sandpaper-scratchy. The thick smoke tightens my throat like a fist’s wrapped around it.
Remembering I’m still here, Papa turns to me. “Little, run along now. Go play or something. Just don’t wander too far.” He chuckles and nudges his friend in the ribs. “If you’re bad, they might just lock you in here, and your brother will have to guard you, too.”