The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most iconic drama films in Hollywood history representing the criminal justice system and “life in prison” themes. The movie was directed by Frank Darabont and released in 1994. It stars actors such as Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and Bob Gunton (“The Shawshank Redemption,” n.d.). It tells a story of an innocent man wrongly charged with murder and sent to prison. The movie portrays the harsh realities of the penal system and shows the protagonist struggling to adapt in order to survive. He eventually finds solace and redemption without compromising his moral compass. A major theme depicted in Shawshank Redemption is the inherent failure of the criminal justice system which creates conditions for the miscarriage of justice and has become an extensively corrupted and dysfunctional institution.
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The movie focuses on the depiction of life in prison. It is able to convey the human aspect to this existence, showcasing brutality, abuse, psychological or emotional distress, and other aspects which ironically dehumanized the inmates. However, it also showed examples of camaraderie and support amongst the inmates. The prisoners are shown as sincere human beings struggling with an environment that inherently seeks to degrade and limit their existence. The men in the system labeled as a danger to society are on a path to redemption.
However, the movie’s theme leads to the role the criminal system as a mechanism of justice. It shows the harsh reality of prison as an institution which uses individuals. Prisoners are rarely given opportunities for rehabilitation into society. This is evident when Brooks is finally released, and he is unable to cope with life outside of prison, committing suicide. Unfortunately, that is a reflection of the criminal justice system which fails at its purpose of reintegration. At his parole meeting, Red discusses the meaningless and political definition of the concept of rehabilitation, which at its core never reaches the prisoners. It is a combination of failed policy, inadequate funding, and profitability for the prison system. The outcome results in prisoners who are unprepared for life outside the institution, thus increasing recidivism rates. Even in modern day, when the concept of rehabilitation has been more popularized, the penal system often has the opposite effect. Andy makes a passing comment, “On the outside, I was an honest man. I had to come to prison to become a crook” (Marvin & Darabont, 1994). Individuals who are jailed are psychologically broken, forced to adapt to the system by engaging in criminal activities or radically changing their behavior.
All the institutions in the film, from the court system, to parole boards, guards, and the warden have an unjustified amount of power to dominate the life of the prisoners. Everything is done to dehumanize inmates for the purpose of benefiting the administration. It becomes a system meant to perpetuate political objectives of retribution which leads to complete apathy in prisoners, as evident by Red’s speech to the parole board (Welsh, Fleming, & Dowler, 2011). Any attempts for “justice” such as Andy’s desire to appeal his case are met with veiled threats. The prison administration has full control over an individual without any repercussion. Corruption is used to enrich those at the top, providing further opportunities for abuse of power while taking away from convicts. Therefore, it can be concluded the system which is meant to serve as the ideal of justice is genuinely unjust on practically every level of power.
Overall, The Shawshank Redemption does a competent job of representing the criminal justice system within a fictional plot. While it is evident that the extent of corruption and violence may not be as prevalent in modern-day prisons which face slightly different issues, the film encompasses many themes and challenges that plague penal institutions. Without any knowledge of the criminal justice system, this movie would lead to mostly negative perceptions about the role that prisons and their administrations play in prisoner rehabilitation.
The Shawshank Redemption. (n.d.). Web.
Welsh, A., Fleming, T., & Dowler, K. (2011). Constructing crime and justice on film: Meaning and message in cinema. Contemporary Justice Review, 14(4), 457-476. Web.
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Marvin, N. (Producer), & Darabont, F. (Director). (1994). The Shawshank Redemption [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.