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Analysis Of The Shawshank Redemption Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 4437 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the media, prisons have always been depicted as a horrible and terrifying place. The movie The Shawshank Redemption is a prime example that supports the media’s suggestion about prisons. In the film we are introduced to Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins who is a banker that is wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, He is convicted and is sentenced to serve two life sentences back to back. While trying to survive and find his prison identity, he meets and befriends Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman), a peddler, and Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) a lifelong inmate, among other inmates. In his attempt to fit into the prison subculture Andy forms a business-type relationship with the captain of the guards Captain Bryon Hadley (Clancy Brown) and Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), as well as various other guards on staff at Shawshank Prison.

The movie gives an insider’s look at various aspects of prison life. These characteristics include prison culture; specifically guard subculture and inmate subculture. The movie also shows prison adjustment, as initiation, prisonization or institutionalization and rehabilitation. The movie gives reasons for how prison is used as punishment, and the way prison can work like a machine.

Prison Culture

Guard Subculture

There are various different types of guards in prisons, these include the rule enforcer, hard liner, people worker, synthetic officer, and loner (Cesaroni, 2009a). The rule enforcer is a very inflexible guard who is only interested in control and custody. These types of guards do not want to negotiate with the inmates. The hard liner is a power hungry guard, who likes to punish and to show authority. The people worker guard type tends to be an older, more experienced guard who relies on their verbal skills, and common sense. The Synthetic officer is a guard who treats the inmate fairly, and is likely to follow the rules closely, depending on the situation. The loner guard is someone who strictly enforces the rules, and needs to constantly prove him/herself to the other guards.

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The Warden Samuel Norton in the film Shawshank Redemption is depicted as a people worker in the beginning of the movie. This is believed because the Warden is shown to be a reform-minded authority. The Warden is also shown to be a devote Christian; in the scene when he is first introduced to the audience, he explains “I believe in two things, discipline and the bible”. However as the film progresses we see that the Warden Samuel Norton is a great example of the hard liner guard, due to various actions. The Warden shows his true nature to be that of a hardliner guard, when he conspires to have Tommy Williams killed so that Andy does not have a chance of getting out of prison. Another example that the Warden is considered to be a hardliner guard is that he is using the inmates as free labor, while taking bribes from competing agencies. The film Shawshank Redemption outlines the head guard, Captain Byron Hadley to be a good illustration of the rule enforcer. When Captain Hadley is introduced to the audience he is yelling at a new inmate “You eat when you’re told to eat, you shit when we say you shit, you piss when we say you piss” in response to the question “When do we eat?” This depicts that Hadley’s role is to enforce the rules. Hadley enjoys being a vicious and extreme guard who enjoys horribly beating the inmates. The Captain also beats a new prisoner to death on Andy’s first night in prison.

Inmate Subculture

Inmate subculture is described as the norms, beliefs, values, ideologies, symbols, and language specific to a group of inmates in prison (Ishwawan & Neugebauer, 2001). These norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes are stripped from the inmates when they first come into the prison which then changes to manipulation, deceit and a criminal lifestyle (Stojkovic, Stan & Lovell, 1998). There are two models for inmate subculture, the deprivation model and the importation model (Ishwawan & Neugebauer, 2001). The Deprivation model suggests that the prisoners suffer and get frustrated due to the absence of liberty, privacy, free access to goods and services, heterosexual relationships, autonomy and security (Stojkovic, Stan & Lovell, 1998). This theory suggests that the inmate subculture is evident due to the pains of imprisonment. While the importation model or functional model explains that the subculture is evident since the prisoners are replicating the outside world. This model includes the prisoner-staff dynamic, 3 types of inmates, various racial groups within the prison population, type of offence, record of recidivism (re-offending), personality differences (prior to imprisonment), power of “politicians” (top of the inmate social hierarchy), work gangs, work groups, and sexual “deviation” which would directly affect inmate subculture. Both inmate subculture models comprise of a behavior code, a power hierarchy, an economic system for illicit goods and service distributions and “argot” rules (Ishwawan & Neugebauer, 2001).

Argot rules are a set of terms that inmates use to refer to various roles in the prison subculture (Ishwawan & Neugebauer, 2001).The prison argot roles include terms such as fish, rat, gorilla, center-men, merchant, ball buster, tough, real man, wolf, fag and punk. Fish is a new inmate; in the film all the new inmates are called fish by the other inmates. As the new inmates are walking in there is another (older) inmate who is making gestures about “reeling-in fish”. A center-man is an unpopular inmate who tries to ingrate with the prison authority. In the film, Andy would be a great example, as he helps the guards (and the Warden) with their taxes and manages their money. However when asked about it, Andy denies the claim. Andy is also liked by the other inmates, once they get to know him, thus he would not be a complete center man. Brooks is another example of a center man, however in the movie Brooks is popular, and everyone likes him. A Merchant or peddler is an inmate who sells when given the chance, in this case Red is a perfect example. Red is “the guy that can get it for you, cigs, brandy, anything within reason”. A wolf is an inmate that takes the male role in sexual encounters. These individuals are very aggressive and are not of homosexual orientation outside of prison. In the movie Bogs Diamond the head of “The Sisters” gang is a good example. The gang rapes and assaults Andy several times. In this case Andy is the punk. Punks are forced by the wolves into the female role in sexual encounters

The following terms were not depicted in the film Shawshank Redemption. A rat is someone who tells on the other inmates for privileges from the guards. A gorilla is a physically strong inmate who preys on a weaker inmate by using force of the threat of force. A ball buster is an inmate who creates disturbances for the sake of it. A tough inmate is someone who is violent and abusive towards other inmates. A real man is an inmate who does his own time, and does not interact with other inmates very much. A fag is an inmate whose sexual orientation is homosexual before entering the prison. This inmate willingly participates in the female role during sexual encounters. The argot roles are part of prison adjustment.

Prison Adjustment

There are three main stages of adjustment that an individual will experience when they are sentenced to spend time in prison. The stages include initiation, prisonzation or institutionalization and rehabilitation. Initiation is when the individual is first entering the prison and needs to confirm to prison culture. Prisonization or institutionalization is when the individual develops their prison-self. Finally rehabilitation is how the individual adjusts and deals with being rehabilitated and returned back into society. All three of these stages are depicted in the movie and show that initiation and rehabilitation are the hardest stages to deal with when it comes to prison life.

According to Wheeler, prison life and culture is in the shape of a U-shaped curve (Cesaroni, 2009b). At the top of the U is the initial entry into prison which is a high stress period regardless of whether the individual has done time before or not. The prisonization or institutionalization part of the theory is the middle of the U, this is where prison culture really sets in and the inmates are the furthest from their outside selves. It has been found that inmates are on their best behavior at the beginning and at the end of their sentences. Once again at the end of an inmate’s sentence, they experience a high stress period. However this period revolves around being released from prison and how the individual will rehabilitate back into society.


According to Goffman there is a psychological process that an individual must go through when entering prison (Ishwaran & Neugebauer, 2001). This process is referred to as mortifications of the self. Mortifications of the self is when an inmate has to give up their civilian identity, and are forced to adopt the new institutional identity into their daily lives. Essentially they are stripped of their societal self and forced to discover who their prison self is.

The initiation process begins by first off taking any personal possessions that these individuals may have on them such as money, clothing or other personal effects. The new inmates are then put through various demoralization processes which may include the cutting of their hair, disinfecting and finger printing. This process is depicted in the film when Andy is first brought to Shawshank Penitentiary. They are marched through the yard while the other inmates watch on, most of them calling out names like ‘Fish’. The new inmates were then marched into a dark room where they meet the warden and captain of the guard. After which they are hosed down in a cage and then tossed in tick-powder almost as if they are animals. All new inmates are then given a prison uniform so that they and all other inmates in the institution will be dressed the same sans the number printed on the front of the uniform. That number is the inmates’ new identity while they are within those prison walls. After the prisoners in the movie have been cleaned they are given their uniform and a bible before being forced to march to their cells naked.

The initiation process itself is intended to further isolate the inmate thus separating them from the general population. These feelings of isolation and loneliness force the inmate to seek comfort elsewhere; this usually tends to be prison subculture. Clemmer states that the inmates’ loss of autonomy encourages the inmate to identify with the prison hierarchal system that is very similar to that of the outside world. By grasping and understanding this familiar status enables the inmates to gain feelings of self-worth and prestige within the prison. The inmates adjust to prison subculture in order to maintain a sense of safety and protection as well as enabling them to learn and adhere to the rules of the prison. This can help placate the guards which ultimately could lead to a lower sentence and no further punishment. When the guards in the movie turned the lights off in the prison after bringing in the new inmates, the taunting from the older inmates started. Red stated in the film “they always go fishing with first timers, don’t stop until they reel someone in”. What Red is trying to say is that the older inmates always taunt and name call the new inmates. The older inmates do not stop until someone starts to cry, which is equivalent of catching in fish Even the ones that sound like they are trying to be nice are taunting the new inmates. In the film Shawshank Redemption, Red bet his fellow inmates that Andy would be the first to cry on the contrary Andy did not make a sound all night.


To truly understand prison and how it affects the individual Goffman described it as a total institution. Another way to think about prison is as “a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life” (Ishwaran & Neugebauer, 2001). This is in the sense of the controlling structure and social organization in which the prison functions. Clemmer states that prisonization or institutionalization is the process of socialization of an inmate into the subculture of the prison. This process includes learning about the prisons subculture such as values, beliefs and behaviors that challenge the prison staff. Although these rules and subcultures are in place to rehabilitate the offender they may reinforce some types of deviant behavior as well.

Some people who enter prison will not fully adopt the prison subculture. Individuals who buy into the prison culture tend to have longer sentences, unstable personalities and tend to not have weak relationships with people on the outside of prison (Cesaroni, 2009b). The individuals who resist prison culture tend to have shorter sentences, stable personalities and fairly good relationships with people in society. In the film most of the characters had long sentences and easily bought into the prisonization effect. A prime example of that is the character Brooks. Brooks was in the prison for 50 years, been sent to Shawshank Penitentiary in 1905. He started to think of himself as an important man within the prison walls since he had been in charge of the library since 1912. However on the outside he was nothing, and he “couldn’t get a library card if he wanted to”. Red said it best when talking about prisonization and the walls at Shawshank Penitentiary “the walls are funny, first you hate them, then you get used to them, then you need them”. Brooks found out the hard way while on parole, that after 50 years of being in prison and abiding by the prison cultures he could not live in normal society anymore.

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Another reason for individuals to buy into the prisonization or institutionalization affects is due to Sykes’s deprivation model (Cesaroni, 2009b). This model states that the stress and difficulties are caused by the depriving conditions of the prison itself which ultimately lead to the inmates coping with prison culture mechanisms. Sykes theories on deprivation are not far off when it comes to conditions of the prison. There is a pain in entering prison even after an inmate adjusts to their new home. They have lost their rights of liberty and are deprived from goods, services, security and the option of a heterosexual relationship. Inmates are treated like children by being told when to eat, when to work, when to sleep and even when they can use the bathroom. The facilities are a poor environment because there are rats and a high risk of illnesses due to close quarters with other inmates. In the film, one of the new inmates asks Captain Hadley when they will eat to which he responds that “you eat when we say you eat. You shit when we say you shit. You piss when we say you piss”. This was something that Red had trouble with later once he was on parole.


Rehabilitation is a program and a goal that the penal system uses to help inmates return to society without the fear of re-offending. In the past it was believed that criminals committed crimes because they were lazy therefore the inmates needed to work hard in order for them to change (Cesaroni, 2009c). It was believed that a strong work ethic was directly connected to positive social behavior, thus teaching inmates to work hard was seen as a way to reform them. It is now believed that meaningful work can lead to rehabilitating an inmate because they learn skills and develop good work habits that can be used in society. This can also help the inmates when applying for parole. Inmates who work hard while in prison are seen more favorable by the parole board, since the need to re-offend is decreased.

Rehabilitation is a science and it started being seen that way in Canada in 1935. It was considered that in order to rehabilitate inmates professional help from psychologists, psychiatrists and correctional managers was needed (Cesaroni, 2009d). This worked well until about 1970, when all the rights and actions groups started protesting with the use of riots, murders and hostage takings. At this time the people were demanding a get tough attitude towards criminals as well as their wayward children (Gendreau, Smith & Goggin, 2001). After the civil unrest of the 1970s, rehabilitation was brought back into the thoughts of corrections in new ways, it was felt that some inmates belonged in the community, away from the experts and not locked away behind bars (Cesaroni, 2009d).

In the film Shawshank Redpemtion, rehabilitation was shown with two different characters, first Brooks was released on parole after 50 years in Shawshank. When Brooks was heard that his parole was granted he initially did not want to go out. He felt that although he was someone important within the walls of penitentiary, he would be a nobody in the outside world. The first thing that Brookes notices when he left Shawshank Penitentiary was that “the world got big in a hurry and that everything moved very fast”. Through the parole board he was able to get into a half-way house as well as get a job bagging groceries at a Foodway. However Brooks did not like his job, it was hard work, it hurt his hands and he believed his manager was not very fond of him. The whole time Brooks is out he keeps thinking about committing a crime such as shooting the manager so that he can go back to prison. In the end Brooks hangs himself in his room at the half-way house because he cannot deal with the stress of being in society. In contrast Red had been up against the parole board numerous times throughout the film. Red is finally granted parole after serving 40 years into his life sentence. Red gets parole after telling the parole board that “I think rehabilitate is a made up word, that he does feel regret for what I did because I was a young and stupid kid who created a crime and wants to take it back not because I am in jail or because that is what the parole board wants to hear”. Once he is released he is given the same room and the same job that Brooks had. Red feels that he will never get used to living outside the prison. This is because old habits die hard, and Red keeps asking his manager if he can use the bathroom, the manager states that “you do not need to ask but to just go”. Red wants to be back in Shawshank where things make sense but there is one thing that stops him, his promise to Andy.

Prison as punishment

The rules of punishment outlined by Andrew Flew suggest that human suffering must be present (Cesaroni, 2009e). The rule must be a directly related to the offense, and should be directed at the offender. The punishment should be inflicted by an authorized body overlooking the embodiment of the rules or laws of the society in which the offence was committed. David Garland outlines various social functions that relate back to the complex relationship between punishment and prisons. These social functions include moral process, economic and political control, power, knowledge, and discipline as well as cultural transformation of human behavior (Garland, 1991).

Punishment is a moral process in which shared values and norms are based on society (Garland, 1991). Moral process is described as punishment functions which try to preserve the shared values and norms. The moral process reforms the social order and institutions, and reconfirms social solidarity. Punishment symbolizes and enacts moral judgments, punishment becomes a symbol. Garland argues that punishment is very emotional even though it is suppose to be rational, and impassive. Prison is a ritualized expression of social values. Punishment sustains a collective social conscience and sustains social solidarity. An example from the movie is that the judge orders Andy to serve two life sentences back to back. While red serves a life sentence as well.

Prison as punishment is a part of a wider strategy in order to control the poor/lower class (Garland, 1991). The tougher punishment is always placed on those that come from poorer parts of society. The prison might use the inmates as a cheap labor force by only teaching the inmates in trades, which are not available or valid in the job market. The economic needs or threats to the upper class are always valued over the victimization of the lower classes. Social forces that cannot be manipulated are very important in crime and are always at play in society. In the film Shawshank Redemption the inmates are shown doing laundry in a prison basement. Another example from the movie is the various times they are working outside (in the spring of 1949 they would work outside tarring the roof), and various other outside working contracts. The Warden is putting other contractors out of business with his prison labor. Since the prison inmates do not have a high wage rates, the Warden uses Andy for all the banking matters, and to hide the extra bribes that the Warden receives. Andy also works for cheap.

Power, knowledge and discipline are part of expert knowledge, the power to change something and to discipline (Garland, 1991). Prison is also about educating prisoners so that they can be reformed and are more functioning in society. Power is used in the form of judges and the courts to incriminate the accused. Discipline is used in the daily practices of guards, to keep order in the prison. A primary reason for punishment is also to keep order in society. The Warden has strong beliefs in religion in the movie. Shawshank Redemption has a scene when the Warden is checking for contraband and is pleased to see Andy reading the bible. The Warden assumes that Andy is reading the bible, when in fact the bible is used to hid instruments for rebellion.

Cultural transformations are changes in attitude, conduct, social organizations and interactions (Garland, 1991). These changes can include personal hygiene, expressions of anger, sex, violence, suffering and death over a period of time. In the last 500 years there has been a change in sex, violence, bodily functions, illness, suffering and death which have moved to the private domains. Moral, economic, cultural and knowledge all explain the complex issues of prison as punishment in society.

Prison as a Machine

In a lot of prison films, Shawshank Redemption included, prison is depicted to function much like a machine in a factory (Mason, 2003). This machine primarily runs on a strict set of rules and regulations which are constantly in effect. This depiction has an effect on viewers which is to showcase an individual’s fight for survival and the process of dehumanization that comes with being incarcerated within the system itself. The actions of the prison machine are shown by the inmates themselves and how they move about the prison. From when the doors of the cells unanimously open allowing the prisoners to step out so that they can march down to breakfast in a row, or so they can be led into the yard altogether. Many prison films also tend to show the same monotonous tasks being done over and over again to depict the mundane regime that the prisons run on. It is acts such as these that represent the inner workings of the machine, the prisoners are the cogs and gears that work the machine while the prison itself is the cold hard exterior of the machine. The rules and regulations that make prison like a machine are how the inmates need to be told by the guards when they can eat, sleep and use the facilities and how long they will have to complete each task. Any violations of these rules will have consequences which usually is a stay in solitary confinement.

In the film there are numerous scenes where the inmates are getting let out of their cells together, eating together and spending time in the yard together. Every morning they are ordered to stand just outside their cell door for inspection and march down to breakfast together, as a group. There are two instances in the film where these rules and regulations are broken. The first is when Andy receives his first shipment of supplies for his library, he locks himself in the warden’s office and plays one of the records he receives so that everyone in the yard can hear it. As punishment for disturbing the peace of the prison Andy spends some time in solitary confinement, also known as the hole. The second time is when Andy did not come out of his cell when the guards opened the door in the morning, the reason for that is because Andy was not there. Andy had escaped from Shawshank in the middle of the night through the hole he had been digging for years hidden behind his Marilyn Monroe poster. Andy never did receive a punishment for that violation because he was never found.


Prison has been depicted in many different films over the years, each of them including Shawshank Redemption, has shown to the world that prison is horrifying. Shawshank Redemption has proved that prison is a brutal place by demonstrating how different guards behave and treat the inmates, as well as illustrating the way the inmates interact with one another and the ways in which they try to make their daily lives a little more bearable. The movie explains how inmates adjust to prison life from the initiation at the start of their sentence, to rehabilitating the offender back into normal society as well as prisonization or institutionalization the inmates’ experience. The film Shawshank Redemption also explained how prison is used for punishment purposes and proved that prison can function as if it were a piece of machinery. The media has always depicted prison to be a negative place and the movie The Shawshank Redemption is a prime example.


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