The Shawshank Redemption and the Hypocrisy of Incarceration Nation


I would bet against me avoiding political commentary in the coming weeks and months. For now, we’ll focus in on an issue that – surprise surprise – has not  managed to hold much place in the ongoing political dialogue. Dialogue is, I suppose, much too kind a word for the bloviating that dominates political rhetoric and disscourse (extra ‘s’ intentional).

The justice system in this country is in need of major fixes and some total overhauls. Among the necessary changes to the justice system is prison reform. The current prison system is a bloated panacea that has become a supplier of neo-slave labor. Additionally, it has disproportionately contributed to the plight of many black communities and created a warped sense of reality that frustrates statistical interpretation and projection. White-collar criminals have unfairly avoided prison sentences or bought their way into nicer detainment centers. There are numerous incidents of prison guards grievously abusing inmates. The current system emphasizes punishment rather than rehabilitation, and life after prison is a really tough go for ex-cons – creating such a high re-incarceration rate.

Despite all the wrongs of the prison system, it seems that Americans, in general, don’t care about their incarcerated compatriots. There’s not a lot of sympathy going around for people locked behind bars. Of course – of course – there are some individuals in prison who are dangerous and deranged and should be kept in prison for the well-being of society. But even the psychopaths should be treated humanely. For the most part, people just tend to not think about the millions of people in prison.

And this neglect, apathy, and outright disdain persists despite the fact that prison is – what’s the word? – I honestly can’t think of the right word. It is a horrific, dangerous place to be. At its most basic level, prison is a box that holds people that need to be kept away from society for a while. But prison so often becomes a cruel and unusual punishment. Taking away life’s luxuries is one thing – subjecting people to physical, sexual, and psychological trauma is another. If you can stand it, listen to a few seconds of what solitary confinement sounds like (hint: it’s not quiet).

But here’s the disjointed and hypocritical part of Incarceration Nation that I want to get at: sometimes we really like prisoners. Sometimes we empathize with them. In fact, I think it’s our natural inclination to have pity on the prisoner.

Because you realize that arguably the most-loved American film of all-time is about prisoners, right? Yes, The Shawshank Redemption has a wrongly-convicted man as its main character, but it takes almost no effort for the filmmakers to get the audience to love all the prisoners, with the obvious exception of the men who repeatedly rape Andy. We’re thrilled, as an audience, to see the prisoners gain some nice things like the library, and everyone has a few notes played on the heart strings in the famous “Opera Scene.”

Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, has to be one of the most beloved characters Freeman has ever played – and he’s a black prisoner who readily admits to murdering someone!

Shawshank isn’t the only example of this either – Cool Hand Luke is another iconic film about prisoners – albeit in a setting that’s a little less “maximum security,” given that we’re supposed to believe most of the prisoners aren’t there for the long haul. Still, this film also manages to make the audience love the convicts and celebrate their happiness and mourn their hardships.

So what the heck is up with that? Why do we like these prisoners but hate the ones in real life?

Is it because of the sadistic wardens and guards? It shouldn’t be – there’s plenty of those in real life too.

Is it because of the vibrant characters? Shouldn’t be that either – there’s some interesting people locked away right now.

Is it because the prison life doesn’t seem as bad as in real life? Well, maybe, but if it was worse in the movies, wouldn’t that make us pity them all the more?

I think we just have to accept this as disjointed and hypocritical. We like the fictional characters that are safely locked away on the big screen, but we ignore and even hate the real life convicts that once walked among us. Watching those films, we can let our desire for freedom and our touting of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness dictate how we feel. We set aside our prejudices and embrace empathy as we see humans locked away in a place none of us want to be.

But when does this disjointedness reveal an unnatural mindset: when we watch the fiction or when we consider the real life prisoners? In other words, are we fooling ourselves when we pity the dangerous criminals on screen or are we dishonest when our empathy withers as the detainees become very real?

I don’t know. I am pretty sure, despite our acceptance of Morgan Freeman’s character, that there’s a racial component to it (and, besides, could we really be scared of Morgan Freeman?). It is worth noting that Red is, if my memory serves, the only non-white character in either film (and in Stephen King’s story, Red is not black).

But racial factors probably compound what might be the real underlying hypocrisy – we can get invested in fiction because it’s fiction. It’s easy to watch a movie and then feel inspired to make a difference, but actually acting on real life problems is so much tougher. Obviously.

What remains clear is a dissonance between our love of freedom and our sympathy for fictional inmates and the way we treat prisoners in real life. Prisoners are people too. Yes, many are dangerous, and many should be behind bars for the safety of others, but the Chateau D’if that we’ve made of  the American prison system needs some major reworking

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

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