The Shawshank Redemption: Prison U.S.A.

by Jason Voegele

Copyright © Jason Voegele


The Shawshank Redemption presents us with the story of two men, Red Redding and Andy Dufresne, serving life sentences at fictional Shawshank State Prison in Maine. The film explores the effects of long-term incarceration on the prisoners by discussing what it calls "institutionalization". It shows us how the prison experience can grow on someone until it is the only life one knows and how he can begin to rely on the institution of the prison itself simply to remain who he is; it "does [a] satisfying job of scouring the methods and madness of an ironclad institution, and letting us look at inmates as if they were puppies lost in hell" (Stack 3c). But prison is just one institution among the conglomerate of institutions that makes up the institution of our country, and The Shawshank Redemption suggests that this grand-scale institution can serve as a prison for all of us; it can serve to institutionalize us as surely as Shawshank prison did its prisoners.

At the beginning of the movie, Red Redding (the narrator of the film) is introduced to us as "the guy that can get it for you." Inside Shawshank State Prison, Red is a very important man, at least as far as the other prisoners are concerned. His ability to get things for people has given him a special status among the prisoners and he has grown used to his lifestyle within the walls of the prison. At one point in the film Red explains to Andy how he has become institutionalized: "These walls are funny. First you hate them, then you get used to them, until it gets to you depend on them. That's institutionalized." Red's life has come to the point that his role inside the prison is all that he knows; it defines his very being. If this were taken away from him he would be unsure of his role in society at large; he would no longer be the guy who can get things and his life would have no meaning.

Red's ideas about institutionalization are confirmed through the character Brooks, the prison librarian. Brooks had been in prison for fifty years before finally being released on parole. This time in prison was certainly enough to "institutionalize" Brooks and for these fifty years he knew nothing other than being the prison librarian. So, when he is finally released, he does not know how to react. His attempted murder of a fellow inmate is an irrational act of desperation committed so that he will not have to leave behind the only life he knows. Brooks does eventually leave the prison behind, but what was meant to be a grant of freedom is actually just a shift from one institution to another, one in which Brooks is out of place. He lives alone and works at a grocery store for a callous, authoritarian manager. (It is interesting to note that all figures of authority are portrayed as callous and/or corrupted. It is also interesting that they are all white, male, and American). Brooks' new life is no better than the one he had known in prison. It is, in fact, much worse. Brooks is "free", but what should Brooks do? Brooks is no longer the prison librarian, the role that had defined his life for fifty years. Brooks no longer knows what (read 'who') he is. Brooks hangs himself.

As obvious as these effects of institutionalization are on Red and Brooks, Andy Dufresne seems somehow immune to them, as if "he wore an invisible coat that could shield him" from the prison. Unlike the other prisoners at Shawshank, Andy tries to maintain ties to his life outside the walls and simply refuses to resignedly accept his role as a prisoner. The "invisible coat" that Andy wears is hope. "It is hope that allows the self-proclaimed innocent man to survive what may or may not be an unjust imprisonment" (Turan f1). It would appear that Andy has been able to stave off the forces of the institution, to remain a free man in spirit if not in flesh.

If we were to consider only his experiences in prison, this would be absolutely true. However, the movie gives vital bits of information about Andy's life outside of prison. In his former life, Andy was a banker-- an "institutional" job if there ever was one. He was introverted and uptight. Andy feels that this was responsible for the death of his wife--the wife he was convicted of murdering. As he explains to Red, Andy's wife thought of him as a "closed book" that was so caught up in his work that he was incapable of loving her, and this he believes lead to the liaison that ended in her death. Andy is the product of a society that stresses hard work and dedication to ascribed statuses.

Oddly enough, Andy's imprisonment can be seen as a liberating force in his life. It allowed (in the loosest sense of the word) him a way out of his previous role, and his refusal to accept the one being forced upon him has granted him a spiritual freedom unattainable to any institutional man. And his eventual escape from prison would seem the logical conclusion of the story. But the fact that Red is our narrator suggests that this is his story too. Red is admittedly an institutional man and his eventual release from prison into a society that has no use for "a guy that can get things" ("Out there...you can use the Yellow Pages") comes only when he demonstrates to the parole board that he is indeed "rehabilitated". Rehabilitated, of course meaning resigned, hopeless, and defeated--"ready to rejoin society". In a word, institutionalized. After this release, Red's life in a society he does not know is similar to that of Brooks; he has merely switched to a larger institution in which he is not important. He is unhappy and fears he may meet the same sad demise that Brooks did. This fear continues until one day Red finds, hidden within "a rock wall, right out of a Robert Frost poem", a box left by Andy. Andy's Box that was, after all the evils and miseries of the world had fled out to afflict mankind, filled with hope. (The Pandora theme is a recurring one throughout the film). Hope, that is, in the form of "twenty new fifty-dollar bills." With this money, Red is able to join Andy where they can both be free from the shackles of society: Zihuatanejo, Mexico. If it exists at all it is too obscure to appear even on a regional map of Mexico. This could be seen as an inspirational statement that "hope, trust, and friendship are among the most powerful of human values" (Sterritt14:2). More likely it is a cynical one. Andy and Red are trapped in their roles in society, and (like Deckard and Rachael in Bladerunner) there is nowhere for them to go--except perhaps this tiny little town in Mexico bordering on the Pacific...if you have the means to get there, the money and skills to make it on your own, if you've served your time.

Does this mean that we are all victims of institutionalization in our society? Perhaps, perhaps not, but The Shawshank Redemption certainly suggests that this could be. After all, how do we define who we are? Who is Ursula LeGuin? She's a writer. Who is Andy Dufresne? Well, he was a banker, but now he's a prisoner. So, are we all doomed to institutionalism? Maybe, but like Andy Dufresne, we can always hope.


jason@jvoegele.com [an error occurred while processing this directive]