One of the most telling aspects of the evolutionary progress of how the American justice punishes those who transgress the law by incarcerating them in the prison system is how remarkably little difference exists between movies set in prison that were produced in the 1930s compared to those produced today as well as how prison films produced today that are set in the past eerily resemble the prison movies produced during those historical eras.
While one should never look to Hollywood to form a historically accurate portrait of any aspect of America’s past, it is nevertheless an inescapable fact that movies can offer a relevant background useful for providing authentic social context. The social context provided through the history of Hollywood’s prison films leads inexorably to a conclusion firmly and aesthetically reinforced by one of the best-reviewed, widely-seen and critically engaged entries in that history. What has most definitely not been redeemed at Shawshank by the final fade-out of the film set there is America’s long, sordid failure to create a penal system that offers substantive opportunities for rehabilitation and provides little resource for facilitating reintegration into society for those who have served long, generation-spanning sentences.
One of the most emotionally powerful sequences in The Shawshank Redemption is a pointed commentary on how America’s prison have systemically failed to provide adequate resources for assimilation back into the mainstream of society following incarceration of such an extended period that the world outside the prison walls is one barely recognizable to a newly released prisoner. Shawshank’s prisoner librarian, Brooks Hatlen began his sentence in 1905. In the intervening years between entering Shawshank and finally being granted his parole, the world outside has witnessed extreme changes in everything from how people transport themselves from one place to another to the length of hemlines on women’s clothing to the way the darkness of nighttime has been conquered. The only assistance Hatlen has received for how to deal with the societal changes so profound as to be the psychological equivalent of being tossed into the future through a time machine is his own eagerness to educate himself through access to the books in the library. Such self-help proves woefully inadequate to the task and the tragic result casts an accusatory finger toward a system that should by now be fully aware of that one glaring failure even if it remains blind toward others.
The suicide of this man who is categorically unprepared to deal with the existential dilemma of facing a world that might as well be on an alien planet underscores a fundamental and inexplicable malfunction in the very reason for the prison system to exist in the first place. The suicide of Brooks Hatlen is an expansion of the critique of this systemic malfunction that traces all the way back to a short scene in 1932’s I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang where another prison paroled after serving an extended sentence complains of actually not being able to walk as well without the ever-present chains locked around his ankles as he did all those years he was forced to wear them. Not only does The Shawshank Redemption suggest that the prisons of 1954 have made no progress since the Great Depression in preparing prisoners for readjustment to life outside the walls, by upping the reaction to a suicide, the implicit assertion is that things have gotten worse.
Also implicit within the story of the suicide of Brooks Hatlen, the near-replication of his suicide by Red and the multitude of similar scenes portraying the difficulty or impossibility for long-term prisons to easily readjust to society is the indictment of the American prison as an institution that seems to be perpetually incapable of teaching the skills and abilities required for successful assimilation into life on the outside without resorting to the skills and abilities related to criminal behavior learned from other inmates. When Red’s initial experience with society following his parole seems to be inexorably leading down the very same path toward a hopeless acceptance of the inevitability of maladjustment, The Shawshank Redemption is no longer being implicit in its critique of prison as something far more akin to a warehouse for unsold inventory than an establishment for rehabilitation. Surely, it is not overreaching to argue that in those moments of dramatic tension when it remains unclear whether Red will be the next person to carve his initials into that wood that the film is explicitly asserting that more of Shawshank’s full time residents are likely to wind up like Brooks than not and, furthermore, that this waste of human potential is far less the fault of the incarcerated than the system that incarcerated them.
Ultimately, the most implicit critique of the prison system made by The Shawshank Redemption is directed less toward prison specifically and more toward all the flaws located within the capitalist system it is helpless to avoid. Much is being made of the evolution of America’s penal system into a for-profit industry no different from any other business. As The Shawshank Redemption subtly points out, the profit motive has been at work behind the way state-sponsored punishment has been maintained since long before Wackenhut came to town. The history of the prison movie has created an automatic assumption on the part of the viewer that those running the prison are at least as corrupt as the prisoners on the other side of the cell bars and, in many cases, even more so. That assumption is quickly confirmed at the sight of Shawshank’s guards sadistically enjoying the beating of prisoners and the warden using prisoners as his own personal little group of slave laborers. That the warden is profiting from the work being done by inmates highlights the underlying problem that begets all the ways that the system fails to prepare those inmates for life after parole. Capitalism is an economic system that rewards profitability while punishing the inability to turn a profit.
Without the capacity to make money by adopting effective programs aimed at genuinely rehabilitating prisoners and actually helping them to prepare for the difficult process of reintegration into the mainstream of society, there is precious little incentive for guards and wardens to do anything beyond the absolute minimum expected of them. That minimum is obvious: avoid riots and anything else that might draw unwanted media attention. The prison authorities capable of remaining under the radar of snooping reporter, overzealous lawyers and too many family members not afraid to open their mouths can essentially enjoy a free ride without too much worry about the public worrying about the awful conditions that a bunch of criminals who probably deserve what they get are facing. The funds that the prison receives to improve its library courtesy of the letters that Andy writes which he is only capable of writing due to the his part in extending the level of graft and corruption being enjoyed by the warden is the loudest political message the film makes. Essentially it is a message suggesting both that capitalist economics are the root cause behind the system’s failure to fulfill its promise of being an institution for rehabilitation rather than mere punishment and that the profit-motive driving the entire of capitalist economics also has the potential to become the instrument of salvation and redemption for a system desperately needing to escape the clutches of its incarceration without any foreseeable hope for parole.