Group Therapy Can Be a Solution for Over-crowded Prisons Rather Than a Technique of Shame at California Corrections

Group Therapy Can Be a Solution for Over-crowded Prisons Rather Than a Technique of Shame at California Corrections
       Governor Brown and his Attorney General, Kamila Harris, have the opportunity to make some changes in California Corrections, including eliminating a costly and unethical practice. A well planned and managed program of group therapy for prisoners placed on probation can be part of the solution for over-crowded prisons in California instead of its current use as a technique of shame.

      Group therapy emerged as both a science and an art in the cities of Vienna and New York early in the last century. Its theory and practice reflected the core ideas of the Western Enlightenment: that human beings would be treated as equals and worthy of respect as they endeavored to change their lives by listening and learning from the lives of others. Participation in group therapy would be an act of personal liberation based on the development of trust and cooperation among its members.

        Currently, these principles are all but obliterated by the techniques now foisted on some inmates by the California Department of Corrections under the guise of “group therapy.” Prisoners are assembled in separate “cages” (euphemistically called “therapeutic cubicles”) to which they are individually brought in chains by guards. The cages are plexiglass boxes and ostensibly “protect” the prisoners from each other. The so-called “group therapists”, who are not in cages, lead the assembly of caged prisoners in some activity. But whatever the activity, it in no way meets the criteria for group therapy defined above. What the citizens of California are paying for is a travesty of treatment, a form of degradation and humiliation that has no clinical justification whatever and has nothing to do with the goals of group therapy. Unfortunately, it is but one example of the mistreatment of the mentally ill in our prison system.

     There are historical precedents for the maltreatment of the mentally ill in jails in the United States and individuals who challenged the authority of those who condoned the maltreatment.  In 1841, Dorothea Dix confronted the Massachusetts legislature on the conditions in state prisons where the mentally ill were incarcerated. She cited evidence that inmates were subject to “cages and chains” among other persecutions. Her protest forced changes by the legislature and produced a wave of reform that swept the country and resulted in the first hospitals that sought to relieve the suffering of the mentally ill.  As citizens, we have the choice to emulate the work of Dorothea Dix.  Are we going to allow our institutions to regress to a standard of behavior that was deemed inappropriate and inhuman 172 years ago?  If we allow this to happen, then who are we as a people?  Is this how we wish to be seen by other nations — and is this the kind of world we want to pass on to our children?

      The mentally ill must not be locked away in isolation as is currently the practice in our prisons — nor must they be locked in cages like animals. It does not matter if this technique is reserved for prisoners in administrative segregation or supermaximum security units which contain  6% to 8% of prisoners in the California Department of Corrections at any given time. No prisoner should ever have to endure such conditions and no judge should ever mandate such practices. If a prisoner is thought to be of danger to self or others, he is not a suitable candidate for group therapy and ought to be given an alternative form of clinical intervention.  Legitimate forms of group therapy can play a significant role in helping prisoners who will be paroled as a result of the Supreme Court decision. Many of those now incarcerated suffer from mental illnesses that have gone untreated by appropriate methods.

   We call on Governor Brown and his Attorney General to stop this circus of caged prisoners immediately and undertake bona fide treatment of mentally ill prisoners in California as they are released from incarceration. An effective program of group therapy for prisoners placed on probation will allow many of them to readjust themselves to life on the outside and significantly reduce recidivism.


 Bill Roller, Life Fellow, American Group Psychotherapy Association

Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University


Bill Roller is a Fellow of the American Group Psychotherapy Association and past Ethics Chair of the International Association of Group Psychotherapy and Group Processes.


Philip Zimbardo is the producer of A Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment. 
An internationally renowned social psychologist, his life work was featured in an article in Science, Volume 332, 29 April 2011 ( See







Armand Volkas’ excellent improvisational troupe of players and musicians will present  a special fundraising performance for our film project, “Group Dynamics and the New Heroism”  on Sunday, May 19th at 2 PM, Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley. Call me directly for directions at (510) 525-9215.

Our film will insprire a new generation of ordinary people to act heroically and nonviolently.

The improvisational performance will take personal stories of courage from the audience and transform them into improvised theatrical pieces. Come and be a part of this exceptional program.


Bill Roller



Please check out our newly edited video on Indiegogo.  It’s more concise and I hope conveys our message more clearly.

Phil Zimbardo and I will co-lead a workshop where we shall mentor participants to form groups of like minded people who will take nonviolent courageous action in defense of ethical principles even at personal risk to themselves. We shall make a state of the art video of this unscripted, spontaneous group process and make the video available for sale and distribution to high school and college classes in the United States and abroad.


My First Experience with Sociocentric Heroism

Inspired by the anti-Vietnam War activism of  Dave Dellinger and David Harris, a group of my fellow college students and I started a draft counseling service for young men in Putnam County, southern Indiana, in 1968.  We prepared ourselves by learning the essentials of the 1967 Selective Service Act supplied to us by Ann Fagan Ginger of the National Lawyers Guild, based in Berkeley, California.

Armed with some legal knowledge and with the moral support of the American Friends Service Committee, we began operations.  Our organizing principle as a group was the shared belief that the war must end and that we had a joint responsibility to stop it by helping young men to refuse service in the armed forces.

A local 19 year old boy soon appeared at our door.  He said he had been drafted, believed the war was wrong, and did not want to serve. Although he had received his induction notice much earlier, he had waited until the week of his induction to come to us. We had about 72 hours, so we scrambled to find a provision in the law that allowed him a delay of induction. By the morning of the scheduled induction, we had found the provision we needed and were ready to present our case to the local government draft lawyer at the County Seat.  Our biggest obstacle that morning was collecting enough gas money—gas was 25 cents a gallon—to get the 1955 Volkswagen running to make the trip to the County Courthouse.

Once there, we presented our findings to the lawyer and waited.  He looked at the law with the eyes of someone who was looking at it for the first time.  His brow furrowed and he announced in a grave tone, “According to the provision here, I have no choice but to instruct the Board to stop this boy’s induction immediately.”  Both jubilant and weary, we went home to rest before afternoon classes.

This was my first experience with sociocentric heroism—joining with like minded people to act nonviolently in the defense of an ethical principle.  The young man whose induction we stopped , was lost in Selective Service paperwork and was never sent to war.

Our success in this case reinforced our belief that collective activism of this kind was not only effective but also exhilarating and life changing.  It is this spirit that Phil Zimbardo and I want to imbue by our video project, “Group Dynamics and the New Heroism.”  Once people have caught that spirit, they are never the same.

Bill Roller

I Just Spent the Day with Hector Aristizibal, the Colombian Psychotherapist and Performance Artist

I  just spent the day with Hector Aristizibal, the Colombian psychotherapist and performance artist now living in Los Angeles but traveling the world with his special kind of magic. Hector  is the creator of the powerful video, “Night Wind” or “Viento Nocturno,” the story of his courageous resistance and resilience in the face of torture. He works with people who have heroically survived torture and have become extraordinary persons with a deep sense of who they are and where they are going. Hector embodies the New Heroism that Phil Zimbardo and I speak of. He enlists the help of others to courageously challenge those authorities who dismiss the legal and binding significance of Article I of the United Nations Declaration and Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment and Punishment. I admire and respect Hector for his personal commitment to this cause.

Bill Roller


Our New Video “Psychology and the New Heroism” Was Chosen as a Premium by Project Censored

Our new video, “Psychology and the New Heroism” was honored to be chosen as a premium by Mickey Huff and Peter Phillips for their Project Censored show on KPFA RADIO 94.1 as part of the station’s winter fund drive.  We will also have an opportunity to share information about our video and our INDIEGOGO  campaign at the Project Censored event, Thursday, February 21st at 7 PM, Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, California, featuring Dan Ellsberg in conversation with film maker, Oliver Stone regarding his new book with Peter Kuznick and his ten part television documentary film, The Untold History of the United States.

Click here for information about our campaign

Click here for information about our campaign

Bill Roller

The First Meeting of our Group on May 4, 2013 Has Already Begun

In terms of systems theory, the group dynamics for our first meeting with young people on May 4, 2013, has already begun.  Isomorphy, often called parallel process, means that in a complex system there are similar organizing structures that operate beneath the diverse contents of any system. We are not just creating a video called “Group Dynamics and the New Heroism” but creating a movement–and that movement begins with the formation of many subgroups.

As the co-leader subgroup, Phil and I are working through our anxiety  about leading a group that no one has ever led before and finding the funds to make the video. Our process anticipates the anxiety that our group members will surely experience as they form their subgroups of network support and face the uncertainty of how they can act nonviolently and courageously in the world and how much risk they are willing to take. As the production subgroup, my film director and I are working through the anxiety of taking on the difficult task of how best to capture images of our group members’ interaction on camera with limited resources.  Our camera people and crew must form their own subgroup as well to meet the challenge of filming a spontaneous, unscripted group that is moving and shifting at will.

At each level, our subgroups face the essential work of the new heroism: Being willing to take calculated risks and spontaneously act in concert with others in situations they have never faced before. In this sense, our research is measuring the capacity of our subgroups to mitigate our fear of failure. It will be a test of our sophistication and humility as leaders and participants that we can persevere in the face of high uncertainty and low predictability.

In this sense, our group has already begun.

Why Should Psychologists and Group Therapists Be Interested in the Group Processes that Lead to Torture?

It is not immediately obvious why psychologists and group therapists should be interested in the group processes that lead to torture. It is an historical truth, as Alfred McCoy states in his book, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, “–torture research had involved three of the ‘100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century’ –Hebb, Milgram, and Janis–as well as several presidents of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association ” (p.33)

But beyond this formal, scholarly involvement, group therapists are quite aware of the power the leader has to manipulate and shape the behavior of individuals acting in a group. Authoritarian leaders require obedience of group members and establish a norm that rewards the conformity of its members and punishes any departure from conformity to agreed upon practices and tolerates no compunction expressed by individual members.This phenomenon has immediate implications for the the group processes that proceed and lead a group to become torturers. Dissenters are branded as disloyal. In such a hierarchical system, responsibility becomes diffused. Everyone is just doing their job. Whatever accountability there is often falls to the lowest members carrying out the orders. They become the bad apples, if shameful or criminal behavior comes to light.

It is clear that psychologists and group therapists must use their special knowledge to counteract the aberrant group behavior described above. The Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards for Group Psychotherapy, ratified by the membership of the International Association for Group Psychotherapy and Group Processes, “…condemns the participation of group therapists in the planning, execution, or passively witnessing torture, or participating in any procedure in which torture is threatened.”(

As professionals we must enjoin our colleagues to follow these guidelines.

Distortion of Philip Zimbardo’s Prison Study to say that torture is inevitable

Amrit Singh, the senior legal officer at the National Security and Counterterrorism program at the Open Society Justice Initiative, has just authored a disturbing report entitled, “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition.” The report identifies 54 countries in the international community that aided the CIA with its torture operations. The implication here is stark and will be used by those to justify the use of torture and excuse those who practice it. Those who support the use of torture will
say that it is an international phenomenon, unavoidable and inevitable, due to the inclination of  human beings to commit such abuses. They will point to Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and other obedience studies to justify such behavior on the grounds that it is some how in the human nature to torture.

However, it is a distortion of Philip Zimbardo’s prison study to say that torture is an inevitable part of human behavior. Those of us who have spent our lives studying group behavior know that torture and abuse depend on the kind of leadership a group is provided and the group norms that emerge as a consequence of that leadership. In the case of the United States government, it is the political leadership at the highest level that sets the norms for subordinates in the military, the FBI and the CIA to follow.

United States citizens must hold their leaders accountable when they fail to comply with United States law and International treaties which condemn and forbid the planning and practice of torture by U.S. operatives or anyone acting on our behest.

Bill Roller

Note: Amrit Singh is co-author with Jameel Jaffer of the book Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond. 

Psychiatrist wants to replicate the results of our video study

A friend and colleague is very enthusiastic about the video we shall produce with the help of our many donors. He is a psychiatrist and he wants to form and lead a group like the group we shall conduct and capture on the video, “Group Dynamics and the New Heroism.”  He is excited to think he can replicate the results of our process research, looking specifically at our method of teaching group members to act nonviolently and heroically even at personal risk to themselves.  It will be an opportunity for him to follow what will be a pioneering study.

Many studies have been made researching how to get people to obey authority–but next to nothing until now has been spent researching conditions which allow people to obey their conscience.

May this be the beginning of a new worldwide trend.

Bill Roller