Corruption and Salvation:
The Shawshank Redemption
The basic plot of The Shawshank Redemption (Marvin & Darabont, 1994) is not unique: an otherwise historically upstanding citizen is falsely accused of killing his wife, sent to prison, and forced to deal with the unfamiliar and unfriendly environment in an effort to survive. This is what the surface of the film offers, but beneath that surface, The Shawshank Redemption (Marvin & Darabont, 1994) is a movie about the corruption of the penal system and the salvation that sometimes occurs despite it.
Early in the film, the corrupt hierarchy that controls every aspect of prison life at Shawshank is exposed as Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and his fellow arrivals are lined up in direct view of the old inmates. This lineup is followed by the humiliation of Dufresne and the other new prisoners at the hands of the guards, and it is no accident this takes place in front of Shawshanks’s existing population: prisoner mistreatment seems to be viewed as a reasonable extension of one serving a sentence. One guard in particular, Captain Byron T. Hadley (Clancy Bown), does his best to assert his superiority over the new prisoners via his angry and demeaning behavior. With the new prisoners at his mercy and the remaining population cheering him on, Hadley leads Dufresne and the others to the supply area where new prisoners exchange their personal clothing and meager possessions for prison garb and prison-issued supplies. Not only have the new prisoners lost their freedom, but also they have lost the last bits of that which makes them individual. The humiliation exemplified by this is not a necessary component of incarceration, but it appears to be a norm.
The loss of both freedom and individuality are less difficult to accept when one considers the “victims” are criminals, but the fact that Dufresne is innocent of the crime for which he has been convicted causes one to pause: the man is trapped in Shawshank Prison and surrounded by real criminals, all of whom, like him, claim their innocence. Because the claim of innocence is so prevalent, Dufresne’s actual innocence is not only ignored, it is an element of the hopelessness created within a system that is corrupt.
Initially, Dufresne attempts to live inside the walls of Shawshank Prison as he did outside of them: honestly. He quickly learns that his status as a new arrival deems both his honesty and his integrity as weakness, and until he proves himself able to stand up to the inmates, he is little more than a target. Again, the mistreatment of inmates by other inmates and/or by guards is a result of the corruption within the Shawshank system: it is neither part of serving one’s time, nor a condition of one’s sentence. In the case of Dufresne, it also forces an honest man to adopt a criminal mindset in order to survive.
Gradually, Dufresne becomes embraces of an inner-circle of inmates led by Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), and it is in befriending Red that Dufresne’s salvation begins. Where once Dufresne refused to accept his place among the other inmates—men who are guilty of serious crimes—he begins to find solace in the company and humanity of these men, many of whom have transformed within the walls of the prison. He sees the righteousness in the inmates reflected off of the immorality of the Shawshank staff, and this opens Dufresne to change.
Dufresne is both an insider and an outsider: his is not guilty like his fellow prisoners, yet he cannot align himself with the guard population because many of them are corrupt and routinely commit crimes of their own. The longer Dufresne observes the world that exists inside the walls of Shawshank, the more he understands the real bad guys are not the prisoners but the prison warden and his staff. In an ironic twist exemplifying the corruption within Shawshank Prison, Dufresne makes himself indispensable to the guards and Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) by assisting them with their crooked finances. This arrangement is a shining example of the ends-justifying-the-means: Dufresne’s compromising his honesty to assist the guards and the warden leads to privileges he shares with his fellow inmates. He is perfectly justified in what he does because he facilitates for people he knows to be good (the inmates) at the hands of those he knows to be bad (the prison employees).
A good man at heart, Dufresne is sensitive to the slow degradation of spirit that afflicts some of the inmates with whom he is closest, and in the same gradual manner, he plans his response: a means to make possible the salvation of as many of his fellow inmates as he can. Fighting corruption from within is a daunting task, and Dufresne understood that he could not fight the evils of Shawshank Prison from the inside. He did understand his internal position afforded him the perfect opportunity to weaken the structure of the prison’s corruption, so he begins keeping a truthful version of Shawshank’s finances as well as the version requested by Warden Norton. This is likely not a plan the pre-prison Dufresne would have devised; however, his exposure to prison life has altered his perceptions and necessitated many of his actions. This change in Dufresne is a byproduct of the corruption within the prison system presented in The Shawshank Redemption (Marvin & Darabont, 1994).
While tearing down the prison’s carefully guarded financial structure, Dufresne is also tearing down his cell wall preparing to escape. This carefully planned escape is another example of an idea that pre-prison Dufresne would likely never have entertained—not merely because pre-prison Dufresne would have no need to break out of a cell, but also because pre-prison Dufresne wasn’t capable of that kind of criminal action. Careful to protect even those closest to him from any knowledge of what he is doing and planning: Dufresne proves that some inmates operate under a code of ethics very much like that in place in the free world. Surrounded by the corrupt prison employees, the inmates of Shawshank Prison operate in manner much closer to what one would expect of an honest society.
It is true that The Shawshank Redemption (Marvin & Darabont, 1994) takes much of its basic plot from the typical prison movie; however, this is not the end of the story. Andy Dufresne is a man wronged by the justice system, incarcerated in a corrupt prison, and forced to compromise his integrity in an effort to survive. While surrounded by this corruption, Dufresne seeks salvation, and it culminates in two linked events: first, Dufresne regains the freedom wrongfully stolen from him when he escapes; second, he makes amends for his prison-based survival tactics by exposing the corruption within the walls of Shawshank Prison.
Marvin, N. (Producer), & Darabont, F. (Director). (1994). The Shawshank redemption [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.