Image Credit: Rank Film Distributors
At a time when most of us feel like we are living in a prison drama, now is the perfect time to revisit perhaps the most highly regarded prison drama, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). During the film, protagonist Andy Dufresne is wrongfully convicted of multiple life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover. Over the first 20 years of his sentence, Andy befriends the narrator, a fellow prisoner named Red, and attempts to uphold the inmates’ dignity, in an institution which aims to crush this, headed by a corrupt Warden who ropes Andy into his schemes. Eventually, Andy escapes the prison to Mexico, where Red later joins him upon his release.
The primary message of the film is the importance of retaining hope, no matter one’s circumstances. We learn upon Andy’s escape he has been slowly tunnelling through the wall of his prison for 20 years, reflecting how he has sustained hope of a life outside, despite being convicted of a double life sentence. In contrast, the elderly institutionalised prisoner Brookes has lost hope of living on the outside, and in a tear-inducing scene, kills himself shortly after his release. Red initially resists the notion of hope, regarding it as dangerous, and when he is released he follows the same patterns as Brookes. Luckily, Red escapes the same fate, thanks to the hope Andy had managed to bring out in him before he left, and he joins Andy in Mexico. In a time where we are ourselves stuck in an uncertain and anxious situation, confined to our homes, perhaps we should follow Andy’s example.
Hope is not the only element of Andy’s character that we can take inspiration from. Andy works to preserve his own humanity during the time he is imprisoned, despite prison being designed to deprive this: when the prisoners first arrive at Shawshank, they are stripped naked, hosed down with water, and delousing powder is thrown on them, a degrading experience reminiscent of the treatment of livestock. Yet, Andy continuously strives to remind himself and his fellow inmates that they are more than their prisoner numbers. He strikes a deal with a prison officer to get his inmates some beers, which “makes them feel like free men,” and breaks into the Warden’s office to play Mozart on the megaphones. He also keeps himself busy with numerous projects, such as polishing rocks in a chess set, and rebuilding the prison library. This shows us that whilst it is easy to despair and give up during constraining circumstances, we should cling to our humanity and continue living our lives actively regardless. As Andy says: “It comes down to a simple choice: get busy living, or get busy dying.”
However, despite convincingly capturing the severe effects prison can have on mental health, the film presents a problematic attitude towards dealing with mental health issues. Andy never expresses his problems or feelings with his fellow prisoners, a behaviour which is praised by the film. It is clear that Andy is very self-contained, and does not share, even with his closest friend Red, anything about his plans for escape. Moreover, when Andy first arrives at Shawshank, Red comments how Andy does not cry during the first night, despite predicting he would. This suggests his suppression of emotions is something to be admired, a highly damaging idea when it comes to mental health, particularly with men.
Beyond the personal themes of hope and humanity, the film also critiques the modern prison system. Following the news that the coronavirus has forced the government to release prisoners for their own safety due to the crowded conditions in UK prisons, it is an opportune time to revisit the need for justice system reform. In Popculturedetective’s excellent video essay 'How Shawshank Redemption humanises prisoners', he points out how on its initial release, the film was criticised for its sympathetic portrayal of prisoners. In the majority of popular movies, prisoners are shown as cartoonishly violent and angry, vindicating in the minds of the audience any cruelty that is afforded them. In contrast, the villains of Shawshank are the tyrannical warden and his captain. They are brutally violent towards prisoners, killing or hospitalising them on multiple occasions, and are complicit in ignoring routine sexual assaults amongst prisoners. They are also both corrupt, using prisoners work schemes to exploit the labour of prisoners and to elicit bribes.
By showing the prisoners as flawed, but ultimately sympathetic, the film takes aim at the harsh, retribution-focused nature of modern prisons. Its alternative is shown in the character of Tommy, a young illiterate prisoner who Andy tutors to pass high school exams. He represents the capacity
of prisoners to be reformed, but is killed by the Warden, symbolising the prison institution’s hostility to genuine support of prisoners. The prison outwardly portrays an image of supporting rehabilitation, but beneath the surface is shown to make no such efforts. For example, the warden sells his work program as a way to teach prisoners the value of labour, but secretly this is just a front for his corrupt activities.
The Shawshank Redemption expertly illustrates the problems with a justice system focused on retribution, which neglects to treat criminals as complex individuals that need support rather than aimless punishment.
The Shawshank Redemption is now streaming on NowTV and Sky Go.