It is a reality that prison populations in the United States are rising. The reasons are many, including economic factors, the changing cultural environment, problems in education, lack of enough infrastructure to prevent crime, and too many more to list. Even the media has been blamed. The rising crime rate and the rising populations of incarcerated individuals is a popular object of study, because it is seen a both a preventable and a severe social problem in America, which costs the taxpayers enormous amounts of money and negatively impacts the social environment. Crime has become a severe problem in many inner cities, and prisons do not seem to be helping to lower the crime rate. In fact, many see the prisons as huge festering blights which not only do not rehabilitate criminals, but rather make the problem much worse, due to the inhumane treatment, the lack of useful rehabilitation programs, the dehumanizing environment and the damaging psychological effects of the prison experience which makes the releases even less likely to be able to reintegrate into normal society. The media is blamed for portraying prisons as such horrible places, perpetuating what is seen as a modern myth, and adding fuel to the fire of fear of violent crime that has been sweeping our country and creating a climate which makes prisons seem a logical solution for social misfits who are a danger to ordinary citizens. This paper will examine the movie The Shawshank Redemption in that light to see if it contributes to either the myth or the fear factor in our communities.
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O’Sullivan (2001) reports that, “In the light of the overwhelming evidence that prison fails to meet any of its stated objectives, Mathiesen terms the increased use of incarceration a ‘prisons fiasco’.” He says that prison populations are growing, mostly by the construction of what he terms “supermax” facilities for the dangerous offenders. O’Sullivan quotes Walmsley (2000) as saying that a major part of the problem is that this kind of facility is seen as necessary by a public that is misinformed concerning the actual characteristics of most of the offenders and the effectiveness of incarceration as either a deterrent or a place for rehabilitation. O’Sullivan feels that the representation of prisons and prisoners in modern film may be a contributing factor to the public perception that more and higher security prisons are needed, and that this is an area which suffers from a lack of formal study.
O’Sullivan criticizes Rafter (2000) for purporting to study prison films as a genre and their contributions to the popular “prison myth” which makes prisons a popular choice as the solution for crime, while she not only neglected to adequately define the so-called genre, but also restricted her study to only some films which she found useful for some reason or other. If O’Sullivan is correct in his criticism, this kind of faux-research could do more damage than good. The subject is, indeed, one which warrants considerably more study in the light of the size of this problem. However, that is well beyond the scope of this paper. Instead of debating the pros and cons of the nature, depth and seriousness of the effect of the depiction of prisons and prisoner in popular films, this paper will be limited to examining the depiction of prisons and prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption and comparing it to researched reality.
Shawshank prison in the film is a brutal and inhumane environment where prisoners are maintained in maximum security, mostly for long prison terms. The very first scene sets the tone, when new prisoners arrive and the long time inmates bet cigarettes on which of the new arrivals will be the first to break down that night. The only real hint in this first scene of the actual humanity of these characters is the voice of Morgan Freeman and what we see of the new arrivals. The scene contrasts the long term inmates with the new arrivals and makes the inmates look less human and more hardened when contrasted with the sad state of the weak appearing new arrivals. When the first part of the story finishes, the new “fish” who was the first to break down is dead, having been beaten to death by guards and left until morning without treatment, and the last exchange when Andy Dufresne finally speaks by asking what the dead prisoner’s name was. We immediately see Andy as very human and sympathetic, while the others look very uncaring, because they not only do not know, but they do not care. Red, played by Morgan Freeman is left neutral, because he is seen to be contemplating the whole interaction. So we see that even though we do get a glimpse into the characters of Andy and Red, we actually learn very little at all about any of the characters. They are all two dimensional.
In fact, all the characters are portrayed in two dimensional fashion with just little bits and pieces thrown in for effect. Brooks we see as educated, institutionalized (according to the correct definition quoted in the movie), and helpless. He is portrayed as a good man who, unable to adjust to life outside the prison, chooses a benignly portrayed quiet suicide. The main character, Andy Dufresne, is so two dimensional that we do not know until nearly the end of the film that he is innocent. Morgan Freeman is only less two dimensional by virtue of being the narrator, inside whose mind the film takes place. Still, even by the end of the film, we know very little about this man. For most other prisoner, we do not even know their crimes. We know even less about the guards and the warden. They are all created simply to populate and execute an intriguing plot. Since I have not read King’s original novella, I cannot judge whether it had any more depth to the characters than the film. However, these stick characters are symbolic of what the public believes about criminals, crime and prisons.
The prison, itself, is less than real from the beginning, since it is set in the period between 1947 and 1967. This makes it too remote for most of the target audience. Even those of the audience who were alive in 1947, it is the distant past. The movie was released nearly thirty years after it supposed setting. Psychologically, the audience will tend to believe that prisons are better now, but that criminals are worse. The media certainly contributes to this factor, since violent crimes get plenty of press. Brutality sells, so television, movies and print media use it, sexuality and action to gain audience. By television standards, there are approximately two violent murders daily in Las Vegas, four or more in New York and two or three in Miami. That adds up to a whopping 3000 or so annually for just those three cities. Multiply that by the number of major cities in the United States and Canada, and no intelligent alien would never land a saucer in North America. That would be some serious population control right there.
So the public perception is already influenced by the media to believe that violent crime is far more prevalent than it is, and that the criminals are more dangerous also. However, in Shawshank, only a small group of prisoners are shown as really dangerous, the group which brutalized Andy from the beginning, until they were “dissuaded” by the guards, at the warden’s behest by implication. The extreme contrast between the brutal guards, the hypocritical warden and the prisoners makes the prisoners seem quite upstanding and honest. This further skews the public perception.
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The prison itself is also unrealistically shown in this movie. The geography of the prison is not usefully shown, but it seems as if the yard where inmates exercise is Spartan and bare, and the laundry is huge. The warden’s office is shown as quite small, while the cells are actually larger than is realistic. About the only room which may actually be close to reality is the mess hall. However, it seems quite crowded in the movie, while the same prisoners do not crowd the exercise yard. There is really no possible way to get a realistic idea of the dimensions of things inside the prison. Even solitary is not realistic. In the time period shown, prisoners were not thrown into solitary fully clothed. The showers are also not laid out realistically. In most prisons, the showers are on the wall. In Shawshank they seem to almost fill a large room, with one shower head every few feet. This crowds the prisoners and puts them into a position of no privacy at all. They cannot even face the wall, but stand exposed completely. Lastly, the prison only shows the cells, the yard, the showers, the laundry, the warden’s office and the library. One scene shows a room where movies are shown. Surely there were more indoor common rooms. By contrast, the yard seems quite large, but not well policed.
Because of the dating of Shawshank, electronics are not present. The prisoners could get away with a lot more than is possible now. There was no surveillance anywhere. In reality, modern prisons, and even old prisons, have integrated electronics devoted to recording everything which goes on inside a prison. Tiny cameras and a web of networked lines are reasonably cheap by comparison with the cost of adding guards for adequate monitoring. There is currently no area within a prison which is not covered by electronic surveillance. Still, there are ways to defeat it if one has power. Guards can and do still take advantage of inmates, and there are still places where there is opportunity for violence among the prisoners. It is interesting to note that the violent sexual crimes against Andy occur in other places away from the shower, even though the shower is actually the most dangerous area in most current prisons, because it has less monitoring. The public might assume that showers in prisons are more humane than they really are, since nothing really bad happens there in this movie.
The cinematography used in the Shawshank Redemption is quite clever. It uses very tight shots of small spaces to increase the claustrophobic feel of the space. We never really get a true picture of the size of the prison or of its population. We get the feel that it is crowded, yet the yard is quite desolate and never crowded in the film. When we see Red or Andy, we see them either in group shots, pairs of them together or very close up in a tight frame. Most of the shots of them alone are from a higher angle, giving the impression that we are looking down on them, both literally and figuratively. All of this adds to our sympathy. The last attack scene with “the sisters” is carefully framed to make them overwhelming, without making Andy seem weak. He is simply faced with totally uneven odds.
In spite of the implied violence in the film, the director is careful not to sicken the audience with too much realism. This sanitized view of Shawshank prison life makes the audience feel as if they are seeing reality, while the sanitized version carefully avoids making the audience sick. So prison does not seem so bad. It is unfair, and intellectually the audience is sympathetic to Andy and Red. However, this reaction is more reasoned than it would be if we were to see more realistic scenes. It compares to the décor and costuming of movies set in the middle ages, especially those which took place in royal courts. All the décor and costuming is very beautiful and we have no clue of how dirty the clothing and wigs were, and we never see bedbugs, fleas or lice. In Shawshank, we only see a mouse now and then, and one small maggot which becomes food for a tiny orphan bird. Even the sewer looks relatively clean, although we do get a hint that Andy vomited as he escaped.
One key factor in this film is the story, of course. We are shown Andy being convicted of murdering his wife and her boyfriend. The court calls it brutal, but it is rather a simple shooting, very quick and not involving torture. The prosecution is careful to show that the gun had to be reloaded in order to use eight bullets, but we are not convinced that Andy is guilty and we sympathize with him about his wife cheating on him. The judge says that he is giving Andy two life sentences, because he is cold and unremorseful, while the audience is influenced to believe that he is simply stunned by disbelief and that he may actually be innocent.
The next part of the plot introduces the prison, the guards and warden and Red. We understand that Red is a leader of a group and we hear his thoughts, and find him to be quite human. We do not know why he is in prison, but we sympathize right away, because we see that he has no hope for parole. The meeting with the parole board is a ridiculous formality, after which they will rubber stamp “rejected”. It is interesting that the word is not “denied”, because the word “rejected” carries with it the extra meaning of uncaring.
The story line follows one of Rafter’s (2000) stock plot plans, so her plot analysis is right on, even if her research is statistically flawed. There is the innocent man, the guilty reformed man, the brutal guards, the evil warden and the final escape of the innocent man. Only the rat (stoolpigeon) is missing, replaced by a lone mouse and a crow, instead of a canary. This gives a totally skewed impression of criminals and enforcement. All the people on the side of the establishment in this movie are bad. Intuitively we know this is wrong, so we discount it. However, we do not discount the brutality of some of the prisoners, because that is not exaggerated, but is, instead, softened by the lack of any graphic proof.
O’Sullivan is concerned about this, “Wilson’s concern seems to be that as long as prisoners are viewed in a negative light, with redemption/rehabilitation reserved for the exceptional individual, the message of prison movies is implicitly that prisoners deserve what they get.” However, O’Sullivan continues with an analysis which seems to prove that Shawshank Redemption is not really a prison genre film at all, but simply a good story where the action takes place mostly inside a prison. Can the viewer forget that the setting is inside of a prison? Yes, and the director knows this, so we are reminded now and then by pictures of the “hole” or close-ups of bars and armed guards. At one point near the end of the film, Morgan Freeman tells us that he has spent most of his life being told when he can use the bathroom, and that now he cannot squeeze out a drop without somebody’s permission. (He is institutionalized.)
O’Sullivan has a point that this film never seriously challenges the prison system. IN fact, from the beginning we get the distinct impression that Shawshank prison is different. This is confirmed when the repeat offender, who happens to have evidence of Andy’s innocence, becomes convinced to better himself, so he will not have to return to prison. Andy has suggested that he change professions, since he is not a very good thief. It is implied that if he returns to prison it will be to Shawshank, and this is somehow worse than his previous prisons. The prison setting is never emphasized. It is, in fact, as mentioned earlier, almost sanitized, because the brutality is not the story here. The story is how Andy endured and defeated the corrupt hypocritical Warden by hiding his rock hammer inside the bible. He was smarter than the warden and he bided his time, eventually getting all the warden’s money and exposing him and the guards.
Regardless of where the debate ends concerning the effect of prison movies on public acceptance of prison as a viable counter to crime, The Shawshank Redemption does not follow the pattern of prison movies which are seriously pretending to criticize the system. The scene being a prison is simply part of the story. Yes, the actual reality of life inside a prison is quite sanitized and the system happened to be peopled with all the villains, but this is incidental to the plot of a good story, not a seriously contemplated criticism of the prison system. The author was never trying to reform the prison system, nor was he even criticizing it, even though he pointed out some of the inhumanity and some of the dehumanizing aspects of incarceration. The aim of this story was to tell us about the friendship between Andy and Red and to show us how clever and strong Andy was.
Does this movie have an effect on the audience? Certainly. However, because of the lack of reality when depicting prison life, it is doubtful that it contributes to any public misconception concerning prisons or the acceptability of using incarceration to punish crime. Quite the opposite. Shawshank Redemption never tries to convince us that this kind of prison still exists, since it is set in the past. While we care about the unacceptable conditions inside the prison, we only really care about them to the extent that they motivate the main character, Andy, to wreak revenge upon the warden and to escape with his money. We cheer this as a good story, but we never take the sanitized portrait of the prison as resembling current reality in any way. While Andy, and even Red, are certainly unique as prisoners, we do not see most of the prisoners as any less than human, with the exception of “the sisters”. So whether or not there is a prison genre, and whether or not this contributes to public acceptance of more and bigger prisons, this film does not fit that category.
- Mathiesen, T. (1995) The Driving Forces Behind Prison Growth: The Mass Media, Washington DC: The Sentencing Project.
- Mathiesen, T. (1990) Prison on Trial, London: Sage.
- Mathiesen, T. (2000) Prison on Trial, 2nd ed., Winchester: Waterside Press.
- O’Sullivan, Sean, (2001) Representations of Prison in Nineties, Hollywood Cinema: From Con Air to The Shawshank Redemption, The Howard Journal Vol 40 No 4.
- Rafter, N. (2000) Shots in the Mirror: Crime Film and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Walmsley, R. (1999) ‘World prison population list’, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate: Research Findings No. 88, London: Home Office.
- Walmsley, R. (2000) ‘The world prison population situation: growth, trends, issues and challenges’ (paper given to the Association of Paroling Officers International Conference, Ottawa 2000, [online]