Shawshank Redemption Themes

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Rehabilitation vs institutionalisation

The film The Shawshank Redemption addresses the process and consequences of institutionalization. Released in 1994 and directed by Frank Darabont, it is based on a novella by Stephen King titled Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption. Both works trace the lives of long-term prisoners in Shawshank Prison. The fictional penitentiary, located in Maine, is run by the corrupt Warden Norton and guard captain Byron Hadley, the former involved in money laundering and bribery, while the latter verbally and physically abuses inmates. The story is narrated by the character Ellis Redding (or ‘Red’) and is about his friend, Andy Dufresne. Andy, a successful banker, has been falsely convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover and is serving two life sentences in Shawshank prison. The film follows Andy’s struggle for survival in prison, facing violence, rape, betrayal and exploitation, until his eventual escape back to the outside world.

One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Brooks, a 70-yearold inmate who has spent his last 50 years imprisoned, holds a knife to his friend Heywood’s throat. Brooks cries tearfully, “It’s the only way they’d let me stay [in Shawshank].” Brooks has been paroled but he has become so used to prison life that he fears the world outside and refers to Shawshank as his home. Eventually, Brooks kills himself in a boarding house, after finding life on the outside threatening, lonely and meaningless. At the other extreme, Andy is described by Red as “[having] on an invisible coat that would shield him from [Shawshank],” as if he were immune to and independent of the institution. Andy plans his escape from Shawshank Prison for twenty years, meticulously and determinedly digging through his cell wall with a tiny rock hammer. While Brooks is driven to threatening a friend in order to stay in prison, by contrast Andy is willing to dig through his cell wall and crawl through five hundred yards of sewage pipes to freedom. Looking at how the film portrays Andy as immune to the institutionalization processes in Shawshank, a question can be raised as to whether it is as overwhelming as it seems here: to what extent does institutionalization occur within Shawshank Prison, according to the film?

Since the birth of the modern prison in the 19th century, there has been much debate over the construction, purpose and effects of imprisonment. One consequence of imprisonment is what sociologist Donald Clemmer, who folio • 37

documents prison institutionalization in his book The Prison Community, refers to as “prisonization,” a process that institutionalizes long-term prisoners and produces “the internalization of a criminal self concept” (qtd. in McCorkle 89). Another sociologist, Erving Goffman, defines institutionalization as the manner in which total institutions affect “the structure of the self” (qtd. in Myles 1970). In this case, the total institution is the prison, creating norms and a lifestyle that only exists within the penal environment. This provides prisoners with an identity in line with their new institutional status: an “imposition of the inmate role” (Myles 1970) that completely replaces the identity they had in the outside world. Institutionalization is seemingly impossible to resist in Shawshank. Yet the power relationship between those in charge of Shawshank and its prisoners is much more dynamic and nuanced than it initially appears: the prisoners are not entirely and passively at the mercy of the institution. They are able to find loopholes in the overarching penal environment that gives them the opportunity to resist. In particular, Andy is successfully able to resist institutionalization because he imagines a space outside Shawshank where he has the freedom of individual choice. This private mental space allows him to think independently of his surrounding institution, retaining his identity and preventing the complete “imposition of the...
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