LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Bank executive Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is falsely convicted of shooting and killing his adulterous wife and her lover. Dufresne is to serve his two consecutive life sentences (one for each victim) in the maximum security Shaw shank Prison, where he soon meets Ellis Boyd ‘‘Red’’ Redding (Morgan Freeman), who has been denied parole after serving 20 years of his sentence. Red is the veteran convict who helps the new convicts adjust to the brutality of the guards and prisoners alike; he is also a smuggler who can get anyone just about anything. For Dufresne, the smuggled goods include a picture of actress Rita Hayworth and a geologist’s rock hammer. At the center of the drama is Mr. Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), Bible-toting warden who lays down the cardinal rule: ‘‘No blasphemy. I’ll not have the Lord’s name taken in vain in my prison.’’ But there is another side to the self-righteous warden—he runs several illegal businesses. Dufresne soon puts his business talents to work by keeping the warden’s books (and documenting every detail of his corrupt enterprises). Dufresne eventually escapes from prison using the rock hammer to tunnel his way out. He also smuggles out the warden’s account records. He uses the passbooks to clean out the warden’s secret bank accounts and mails the accumulated documentation to the local police. The police come to arrest the corrupt warden, who manages to escape justice by committing suicide. Reflecting on prison movies The Shaw shank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, and The Longest Yard, Dr. Robert Freeman found himself cheering the inmates and detesting the sadistic guards, just as millions of other viewers have done. Unlike other viewers, he felt an element of disquiet as well—because (before embarking on a teaching career) he spent 20 years as an employee of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Even though he had fi rsthand experience with the realities of prisons, Freeman found himself an avid consumer of the popular culture surrounding corrections. Most of that culture is, of course, a negative one. In Popular Culture and Corrections, Freeman (2000) argues that prison movies have seven interwoven sets of negative imagery: systematic brutality in the service of inmate discipline; exploitation of inmates as a cheap source of labor; the degradation of female inmates; the condoning of homosexual rape; systematic racial prejudice; staff incompetence, corruption, and cruelty; and portrayal of guards as smug hacks who are indifferent to human suffering and obsessed with routine. As you watch The Shaw shank Redemption, ask yourself:
1. Which of the common themes are present and how are they portrayed?
2. Why is there an apparent disconnect in the public mind between negative images of prisons in the popular media and pressures to lock up more prisoners for longer periods of time?
3. How does this movie contribute to federal court decisions that require upgrading conditions of confinement in the nation’s prisons?