Winterbourne View hospital and the social psychology of abuse
Intended for healthcare professionals
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Winterbourne View hospital and the social psychology of abuse

Andrew Phelvin Deputy manager, Metropolitan Support Trust, Cambridge

Andrew Phelvin analyses accounts of the mistreatment of people with learning disabilities in light of findings from the Stanford prison experiment and events at Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq

The abuse of adults with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View by staff with no previous record of misconduct can be compared with the results of the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which students at Stanford University, California, were asked to play the role of prison warders and became increasingly authoritarian towards students playing the part of prisoners. To some extent the abuse at Winterbourne View can be compared with that at Abu Ghraib prison, where US military personnel committed human rights abuses against detainees during the 2003 Iraq war. This article describes how, in such situations, workers who experience prolonged periods of stress and isolation can become de-personalised, and abuse in the workplace can be tolerated or even admired. It explains how the development of such deviant workplace cultures can be prevented by appropriate staff training, supervision and management, and in some cases by organisational reform. The article also suggests that the law on corporate manslaughter should be extended to include an offence of wilful corporate neglect.

Learning Disability Practice. 17, 10, 25-29. doi: 10.7748/ldp.17.10.25.e1581


Peer review

This article has been subject to double blind peer review

Conflict of interest

None declared

Received: 06 June 2014

Accepted: 10 October 2014

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