Shawshank Redemption and the Prisons We Live Within

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Prison, Prison Cell, Jail, Crime

Shawshank Redemption (1994) was considered a financial disappointment in its initial theatrical run but the film’s popularity has grown as it has become a beloved film via cable tv, streaming services or the personal libraries of DVD owners. When a film has such a massive success in affecting audiences, something is happening: a nerve is being touched, exposed and ultimately, celebrated by the audiences.

In the past, Hollywood was often called “The Dream Factory” which highlighted the movie industries’ ability to reflect our dreams back to us. In many ways, Shawshank Redemption reflects back a horrifying nightmare yet the ending provides the audience with a collective emotional release of freedom. Dear reader, be warned that there are spoilers ahead.

What is it about this particular story that grabs our attention and continues to enthrall audiences? The story begins with betrayal and injustice. The lead protagonist, Andy played by Tim Robbins, is innocent but wrongfully imprisoned for murdering his wife and her lover. Certainly, every person has felt the pain of betrayal on some level and wanted revenge, which Andy felt but did not act upon. Andy quickly becomes a surrogate character for the audience to empathize with and champion. Andy’s close friendship with another inmate named Red, played by Morgan Freeman, provides friendship, as well as crucial knowledge on how to live within this prison. This friendship is the emotional core of the film. Andy is far from a typical prison. Early within his time in the prison, Red is able to obtain a small rock hammer as contraband for Andy, who later the audience learns has a plan that will take years to fulfill.

The prison system is morally bankrupt and in time, Andy learns how to live within the system and even manipulate it to his benefit. Whether it is painful family dynamics, a difficult work environment, relationships and partnerships that are painful and unfulfilling, each of us know what it is like to live within a system that is dysfunctional and at times, may even use us.

Andy does not passively accept the corrupt and broken system he lives within; he holds onto hope even when his life is torturous and he is literally abused and assaulted. As he brings a specialized and valued skill set to the prison, he is allowed slightly more freedom. Andy’s work here is covert, under the guise of working at the dilapidated prison library, his abilities with bookkeeping and tax evasion prove useful to the warden and the support staff of the prison. When Andy discovers hard evidence that proves his innocence but the corrupt warden refuses to help him because his abilities with bookkeeping and tax evasion benefit the warden. This appears to galvanize him to his final steps to gain freedom.

His liberation from prison demands time and commitment to his freedom that inspires audiences to seek their own liberation. It took about 20 years but secretly Andy uses his rock hammer to slowly, carefully and persistently to remove a portion of the prison wall. He then climbs down a set of obstacles, break through a toilet pipe and climb through a cramped, foul pipe for literally half a mile.

Have you ever felt this way? Just when you hoped you were free, another obstacle turned up and then another one? How difficult it is to keep working on the ‘prison wall’ that encases us or to climb through a river of sh*t in hopes of “coming clean on the other side,” as Red describes his friend’s escape. This is the work of every person and therapy is a powerful resource in this essential endeavor. To work hard through the disappointments and traumas of the past that imprison, to feel happier, more authentically free. Shawshank Redemption moves audiences because underneath it all, Andy’s journey resonates with our own, encouraging us to move forward, choose action to break free from the past that holds our lives back. Let’s work together to help you build the life you want to lead.