Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 4(1) (1996) 15-17
The Shawshank Redemption: A Review
Based on a short novel by Stephen King
Screenplay and Director: Frank Darabont
Principal Actors: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown.
Release Information: Castle Rock Entertainment (1994) 142 minutes.
For the most part, when the motion picture industry addresses criminal justice concerns, it presents an incomplete and uninformed image. This is not to say that movies which deal with crime and justice always misinterpret substantive issues, however, many movies do not present all the issues. In particular, movies which deal with prisons often ignore the human component of them. In part, they may ignore certain factors because mainstream society would be disinterested in a film which offers an idea that convicts who spend their lives in prison can retain their humanity and hope. The Shawshank Redemption is the exception. It portrays a prison as an institution which does nothing more than warehouse individuals. As such, several criminal justice themes are addressed in the movie, namely, rehabilitation and reintegration. This work briefly reviews the film, while focusing more on the substantive aspects of it in terms relative to criminal justice.
The movie tells a story of prison life, centering on the camaraderie and growth prisoners experience and the survival of an onslaught of indignities to human life in Maine's Shawshank prison. The movie spans the nearly 20-year friendship between two prisoners, Andy and Red, and portrays Andy's prisonization experience and how he gradually adjusts to life behind bars. In this life Andy begins to use his knowledge of investment strategies and tax shelters to ingratiate himself with the warden and head guard, gain protection from a gang of rapists and conduct a tutoring service within the prison. These creative activities allows him to retain a sense of his past life, which 24 hour a day enforced cohabitation often denies.
There are two sequences that are particularly powerful in presenting the film's message that rehabilitation is nonexistent and reintegration within the prison unaddressed. First, an old convict, having just been paroled, cracks and suffers a breakdown where he is pushed to the point of almost killing another prisoner just so he can stay in prison and not enter the real world. When he is released, we see a man unprepared to deal with modern life after spending nearly 50 years in prison. A man who considers murder just to get back to his old life in the prison. It is no coincidence that his maladjustment to life on the outside is part of a larger problem: that being in the prison produced a man incapable and unskilled to live a life outside of the institution and a man [End page 15] with no sense of hope or reason for carrying on. In his dreary, halfway house room, this man climbs up to a beam, carves his name into the wood, then tragically takes his own life.
In addition to neglecting reintegration, The Shawshank Redemption also reveals the unlimited discretionary power of the parole board. In a comical sense, when Red goes to see the parole board, they continually ask him if he has been rehabilitated. We can see from the movie that the prison has not attempted to provide any, but for thirty years, he is asked this question. And for each parole hearing, his parole is denied. It is not until his final parole hearing when he vehemently mocks the parole board, asking them "what is rehabilitation anyways?" He further states its a "bullshit word" so people can have a job. Interestingly, his parole is granted. This sequence stresses the need for parole guidelines to control arbitrary decisions and to set forth criteria for determining an individuals readiness for release. It also demonstrates an indeterminate sentencing scheme without any clear goals related to the prisoner is nothing more than an abuse of power.
Once released, Red's life experiences on the outside parallels the earlier released inmate and he is even lodged in the same room. He too climbs up on the beam, but rather than hanging himself, carves his name into the wood next to the handiwork of the earlier man who hung himself. The differences between the two characters is simple. The inmate who killed himself was unprepared to deal with life after prison because he was not provided with any skills, nor did he know anyone on the outside to assist him once released. In contrast, Red only survived because of his hope. Red's hope was finding his friend Andy, who had escaped the prison in one of the most unique prison breaks ever captured on film. These two sequences are inter-linked and demonstrate correctional policies that make prison a mere warehouse which does nothing to curb the behavior which brought the prisoner into the prison in the first place.
Finally, the film identifies how prison life requires a need to feel human in order to escape institutionalization by focusing on hope as the guiding principle for survival in and out of prison. This hope takes several forms, each of which are attempts by prisoners to overcome the shortcomings of an inefficient prison. Since no prison policy was designed to prepare an inmate for release, or any rehabilitation program designed to assist the inmate, each prisoner was forced to become his own change agent. The movie subtly demonstrates the need for prisons to be more than an incarcerative tool. Moreover, it also points out that the presence of hope can overcome a failed prison system, while the absence [End page 16] of it, leads to failure and a degenerative life after prison.
James J. Sobol
University at Albany [End page 17]