Dave Eshelman, AKA “John Wayne”: The Guard


Image result for john wayne guard
Dave Eshelman and Prisoner 5486.

The son of a Stanford engineering professor, Eshelman was a student at Chapman University at the time of the experiment. He was the prison’s most abusive guard, patterning himself after the sadistic prison warden, “John Wayne,” from the movie Cool Hand Luke. During his time in the prison, he was the most active in using psychological abuse against the prisoners. He was the one that instructed the prisoners to do push-ups when they messed up their count, had them say embarrassing sexual innuendos to other prisoners, and threw the prisoners in solitary confinement for any reason. In an interview with Zimbardo after the study, he says:


“What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen so that the researchers would have something to work with. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, “How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘knock it off?’” But the other guards didn’t stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, “I don’t think we should do this.”

The fact that I ramped up the intimidation and the mental abuse without any real sense as to whether I was hurting anybody— I definitely regret that. But in the long run, no one suffered any lasting damage. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you’re doing, and no one steps in and says, “Hey, you can’t do this”—things just keep escalating. You think, how can we top what we did yesterday? How do we do something even more outrageous? I felt a deep sense of familiarity with that whole situation,” (Margarita, 2017).

His decision to play a role in this experiment had changed the whole dynamic of the Standford County Jail. He instilled fear in the prisoners by taking on this role, and all of the guards followed suit. He was the leader, and most of the guards did not question Dave’s behavior. Instead, they also participated in the psychological abuse he committed against the prisoners. In a sense, Dave was an intuitive politician. He was putting a performance to achieve the goal of the experiment, without even knowing what it is he must achieve. He wanted to be the best prison guard. After the experiment, he had remorse for his actions because it was just an act to him. In current day, Dave Eshelman is happily married, father of three children, a mortgage broker and frequently requested guest in shows about the experiment, being that he was a major influence on how the experiment ended.

Source:  Margarita Tartakovsky, M. and View all posts Margarita Tartakovsky, M. (2017). Zimbardo’s Infamous Prison Experiment: Where the Key Players Are Now. [online] World of Psychology. Available at: https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/08/27/zimbardos-infamous-prison-experiment-where-the-key-players-are-now/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2017].

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