Freeing Every Last Man of Shawshank: A Reading of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption
Debaditya Mukhopadhyay is an Assistant Professor of English at Manikchak College, affiliated to the University of Gourbanga, Malda. He is pursuing his PhD on Spy Fiction from Rabindra Bharati University. Popular Literature and Films, Myths, Adaptations, and Theatre are his areas of interest.
Prison films depicting the escape of victims of erroneous judgement have gained a notable popularity amongst the move-watching audience. Majority of these films seem to be emphasizing that apart from the wronged protagonist, the rest of the inmates are unfit for a life beyond the prison. Such films, therefore, seem to follow a binarism that designates the hero as ‘self’ and the abhorrent rest as ‘other’, thereby justifying the brutal treatment or the lasting effect of imprisonment on the prisoners in general. This paper will attempt to study the film The Shawshank Redemption’s countering and problematization of the aforementioned discourse or politics of the generic prison films. Through close-reading of relevant and iconic portions of the film this paper will attempt to highlight how this widely popular film presents an ideal prison for serving Rehabilitative Justice and draws attention to the issue of institutionalization of a prisoner, as a response to the generic templates of the Prison films as well as the contemporary prison policies of America . While the paper will have The Shawshank Redemption as its prime focus, references to the typical contents of Prison films will also be made in order to trace the genealogy as well as the uniqueness of this exceptional film of Frank Darabont that does not simply offer a thrilling account of escape of an individual but the redemption of prisoners in general.
Keywords: Prison Films, The Shawshank Redemption, Close-Reading, Rehabilitative Justice, Institutionalization, Departure from Generic Templates, Contemporary Prison Policies of America.
Frank Darabont’s film The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is distinctive for its focus on a collective redemption of the incarcerated both before and after their release from incarceration. This paper will explore the strategies and politics that make this film a departure from other prison films. Though much of the film’s success may lie with its depiction of the struggle and final escape of its hero Andy Dufresne, when studied as a part of the genre it represents, that is, the genre of Incarceration films, the film offers more than an inspiring tale about an exceptional individual. This film’s uniqueness lies in its amalgamation of generic and individual elements. If its depiction of a misjudged person’s sufferings in the hostile atmosphere created by a number of incarcerated people and corrupt administration is generic, its focus on the transformation of a whole prison and the portrayal of the post-prison life of prisoners are nothing short of unique. The paper will study these unique aspects of the film and explore the factors which contributed to the developing of these distinctive qualities of the film. In doing so, the paper will delineate the influence of both the pre-existing templates of the genre and the reflection of the contemporary developments in the prison policies of America on this film. Before focusing on this film itself, the paper will offer an overview of the pre-existing politics of the genre of Incarceration films in general in order to highlight the difference between the prevalent discourses of the genre and the subversive elements of this film.
An Incarceration film of course uses prison as its chief setting. These films mostly give a Dantesque view of these prisons, to borrow the analogy of the layered hierarchical structure of prisons. Such a depiction has a significant cultural history. Prisons have chiefly represented environments where people are sent only to suffer in the worst possible way. They were certainly not places for corrections at first. Instead they represented a hellish place which was supposed to terrify prospective law-offenders. The history of prisons’ usage indicates that the society did not actually believe in rehabilitating its criminals for a long time. During the Elizabethan age for instance, criminal law offenders were publicly executed in brutal ways. Prisons were for civil law offenders. These places were “full, and rife with disease” (Picard 2016). Prisons became correctional places only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Protests against public executions (Foucault 73) and the rise of institutionalization as an effective solution to the problem of crime in the place of punishing the criminals, brought about this change during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Mathiesen 19). This methodical change had a cultural implication as well. Explaining the methods of punishment that prisons of this era put into use, Mathiesen suggests that many of the new penitentiaries were designed to subject its inhabitants to a “radical isolation” (19-20). It is this new emphasis on having the convicts isolated that triggered a general curiosity in the public mind about prisons which initiated the trend of offering fictional or semi-fictional accounts of the lives of criminals in prison.
With the rise of the film industry, a better scope for catering to the demand for giving an insider’s view of prisons was found. The American filmmakers took little time to respond to it and hence the trend of making films about prison is found to exist right from the beginning of motion pictures in America(McShane 1996 337). Since these films intended to offer what the audience wanted to see, their makers preferred to stereotype prisons. Jeffrey Ian Ross, while talking about Prison Voyeurism describes how the general public through the ages celebrated public executions by attending them with their family members (2015 400). According to him, the culture of Prison Voyeurism had Schadenfreude at its heart, that is, “taking pleasure in someone else’s pain and suffering”(2015 400). Therefore, showing the prisoners’ discomfort and degradation soon became essential for a generic prison film. Films of this kind did not only entertain the public but also influenced the public opinion about prisons to a great extent. It is important to refer to the observations made by Paul Mason in his essay “Prison Decayed Cinematic Penal Discourse and Populism 1995–2005” for an understanding of this impact. He observes “Successive sweeps of the British Crime Survey have revealed that the public are unacquainted with numerous aspects of the criminal justice system and rely on the media for their information” (609) and more importantly “the Survey reported that just six per cent of the public considered their principal source of information to be inaccurate” (609). According to him, prison films are “symbolically powerful practice that can shape public opinion about the aims, role and nature of prison in society” (609).
Empathetic and meaningful use of the impact of these films could have evoked serious attention to penal world but for that a proper departure from the limitations created by the hackneyed and apparently popular templates was necessary. The narrative pattern formed by these templates chiefly consisted of a misjudged or framed hero, brutal co-prisoners, corrupt or incapable wardens, and a final escape of the protagonist from the hostile prison. Films, specifically from Hollywood, like The Running Man (1987), Lock Up (1989), or Tango and Cash (1989), are examples of this kind. Films of this kind do have moments that critique the flaws in penal system, as is to be found in the case of Frank Leone of Lock Up, who is basically imprisoned for defending his foster father and then handed over to a sadist of a Warden as a punishment for that. These appear inadequate as instead of exploring the plight of the prisoners in general, such films focus only on the sufferings of the protagonist who is basically shown to be innocent. The focus on the protagonist of this particular kind is the chief reason behind these films’ limitations. As their protagonists are mostly framed or misjudged, these films never display the problems of actual prisoners when they show the suffering of their protagonists. These narratives never engage with the plight of actual prisoners as they focus on the depiction of an individual whose very stay in the prison is unjust. In order to rectify this unjust punishment, therefore, these narratives are compelled to end with the downfall of the torturing Warden and/or the escape of the wronged protagonist. Though this pattern makes these films akin to the all-time favourite genre of inspirational tales, where the underdog achieves his/her/ their goal despite all the impediments, it leaves a number of important questions about the penal world unanswered.
The escape of the misjudged or framed hero is justified no doubt but in every prison across the globe there are also people who are serving their terms for actually committing crimes. The portrayal of prisoners of this kind by the type of films described above seems problematic for a number of reasons. Neither can these films afford to be unrealistic and depict a mass escape of these prisoners in general, as that is morally unacceptable, nor can it explain how these convicts who are incarcerated for a justified reason, are supposed to endure the hostile atmosphere of the jail. Moreover, these films are marked by negligence about the effects of institutionalization on a convict in his life post-release. In these films little to none attention is paid to the possible difficulties a prisoner might face after coming back to society subsequent to the serving of the term. It is implied by this negligence that no convict, barring the protagonist, who was never a criminal in the first place, is supposed to have a life at the end of their terms. In short, apart from stereotyping the prisons, these films rely on stereotyping of the prisoners at a large scale. On the one hand they have the wronged hero, representing the lone individual, the underdog, who is to pull the plot to its resolution through his or her struggle and ultimate escape. On the other hand, there are the other prisoners, who are actual convicts and are not supposed to escape or even released during the plot development as the focus of the film is escape of a wronged individual, not the transformation of a prisoner or prisoners in general, or the prison itself.
On the basis of the observations offered above it seems justified to state that the key feature of the generic prison movies is the portrayal of both prison and prisoners in a reductionist manner. The prisons of America ideally had become places for rehabilitation since the early twentieth century (Alschuler 1) but these films ignore this aspect. Prisoners on the other hand are shown through binarism. The protagonist, who will escape at the end, is shown to be innocent, kind, and heroic and the other prisoners, who are to remain in the prison, are violent, abusive, and beastly. Paul Mason, while commenting on this difference, points to this portrayal of “the rest of the prison population as dehumanised monsters and animals, and consequently as “other” ” (2006 616). While many prison films released before and after, follow the generic scheme explained above, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption stands as a sui generis film for its departure from this stereotypical pattern. It is certainly a film that has successfully “challenged, contested or changed” the “dominant regime of representation”(Hall 1997 269) of the generic prison films. The subsequent portion of this paper will now focus on this film’ s subversive content and attempt to trace the factors that inspired the same.
Darabont’s film tells a tale of redemption of not just the protagonist but all the prisoners and the prison itself which, as mentioned before, is rarely attempted in this genre. In fact the subtle difference in title between Stephen King’s novella and the film reflects this difference too. King titled his work Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption which, through its mentioning of Rita’s poster, which plays a pivotal role in Andy’s escape, limits the emphasis only on his escape. The film, however, seems to focus more on the “redemption” part which is done not through his escape but through his activities inside Shawshank. Despite presenting Andy as a messianic figure, the plot does not really attempt to portray Shawshank prison as an epitome of bleakness before Andy’s arrival. Instead, it shows Shawshank as a place where discipline and loopholes co-exist. None of the dwellers of Shawshank appear to be wretched. In fact, they look quite relaxed and at ease with the life inside, particularly when they bet on the newly arriving convicts. Red or Ellis Boyd Redding and as mentioned in the film, a few others, kept the supply of various items associated to a “normal” life coming to their inmates for a slightly enhanced price. As Red says:
There must be a con like me in every prison in America. I’m the guy who can get it for you. Cigarettes, a bag of reefer -- if that’s your thing -- a bottle of brandy to celebrate your kid’s high-school graduation. Damn near anything, within reason. Yes, sir. I’m a regular Sears and Roebuck. (Redemption 08:33-08:49)
The way the inmates are not legally allowed to possess basic items like these, seem to reflect the policy of equating punishment with deprivation from basic amenities in prisons. In Invisible Punishment Jeremy Travis describes how increase of supervision on the criminals led to the expansion of the rules that deprived a prisoner from rights and privileges ( 30). This strictness certainly ensured that prisoners feel discomfort but to what extent that discomfort actually helped the system in rectifying the prisoners is debatable.
By beginning the account of Shawshank prison with Red’ s pre-parole interview, the film makes its engagement with the issue of rectification and subsequent rehabilitation of prisoners clear right from the beginning. In the interview, Red, after having served a long term in Shawshank is asked whether he feels that he has been rehabilitated. He replies, “Oh, yes, sir. Absolutely, sir. I mean, I learned my lesson. I can honestly say...I’m a changed man. I’m no longer a danger to society. That’s God’s honest truth.” (Redemption 07:14-07:32) Red speaks all these clearly enough but in his face one can clearly detect a confusion and a lack of conviction. Red gets rejected and immediately after that his “role” in the prison is depicted through his words about himself, quoted above. There is nothing objectionable about Red’s way of serving others. Nor is his getting rejected an extremely odd thing but by showing these two sequences consecutively, the narrative hints at the existence of loopholes in the apparently sound system of Shawshank. Red would be facing success in his third interview and in between the first and last of these three interviews there happens the arrival of Andy which leads to a thorough change in the Shawshank prison.
Clearly, there is something about the changes Andy brings to the place that makes Red appear ready for rehabilitation to the board. Samuel Norton, the Warden, establishes himself as a strict administrator right from his first appearance and his reliance on discipline and the Bible, which shows he is a Puritan at heart. But when one remembers Red’s rejection that precedes this scene, doubts about the effectiveness of Norton’s policies are naturally raised. Norton and Byron Hadley, the merciless captain of guards, seem to believe in reducing the convicts to the level of machines which is shown by Hadley’s answer to the query of a new prisoner who came along with Andy. The prisoner only wanted to know about the time of eating and to this Hadley shouts: “You eat when we say you eat! You shit when we say you shit, and you piss when we say you piss”(Redemption 13:33-13:47).Rehabilitation was apparently the ultimate aim of Shawshank but Norton was not really using a proper method for it. A look at Thomas Mathiesen’s insightful paper on rehabilitation helps to understand what exactly was wrong with Shawshank.
Mathiesen observes that rehabilitation of a prisoner was not very different from what rehabilitation of old houses, living politicians, and dead politicians meant. According to him, rehabilitation of the prisoner must bring him back to the state before committing the crime and bring the prisoner his “dignity” back (2006 27).The treatment offered to dwellers of Shawshank by Norton and Hadley was not even remotely close to any of these. The duo basically had been using a system of rehabilitation that was based on manipulating the ideal methods for rehabilitation of convicts. For a detailed exploration of this, reference to Mathiesen’s work seems relevant. He opines that the crux of the rehabilitation ideology has not at all gone through a sea change at all and it had four chief aims. According to him these are “work, school, moral influence and discipline” (32).The administrators of Shawshank were using the first, third, and fourth component in a twisted way for having their vested interests served and they had not paid attention to the second at all. For them, converting these convicts into robotic slaves was the main agenda. Ideally, engagement in work was supposed to lead to the development of the prison house itself but in the film Norton himself does not take any initiative for Shawshank’s development. He only orders them to “repair” the roof of the license-plate factory nearby and launches his “inside out” initiative, which, to quote him was: a genuine, progressive advance in corrections and rehabilitation. Our inmates, properly supervised, will be put to work outside these walls, performing all manner of public service. (Redemption 01:18:28-01:18:43)
Norton was interested in sending the men outside because it brought him a lot of money. He was not at all interested in making the prisoners develop the prison itself. In fact, whatever Andy did for it, the library in particular had no importance to him. He simply allowed Andy to pursue his projects because he believed in baiting his workers. He baited everyone for the repairing of the factory by reminding them that this would allow them to have a temporary escape from the walls of the cell, which made hundreds of people apply for it. He did the same with Andy. He knew Andy would work more, would earn more, if he was happy, and to make him happy he allowed him to develop the library. How little Norton valued the library becomes evident when he threatens Andy saying: “And the library? Gone. Sealed off, brick by brick. We’ll have us a little book barbecue in the yard. They’ll see the flames for miles. We’ll dance around it like wild Injuns” (Redemption 01:39:44-01:39:58).Norton’s choice of simile shows how barbaric he was deep down and it explains why Shawshank was a failure in making convicts like Red ready for rehabilitation.
Moral influence, according to Mathiesen, was chiefly injected into the prisoners by making them pray repeatedly. He quotes Selin for giving an insight to this which reads “every effort was made to give a strong religious cast to the discipline in order to make the prisoners God-fearing people”(36). The ideology seems problematic for its emphasis on evoking fear of the Lord. In fact Norton wanted these convicts to equate him with the Lord and fear both, which is betrayed when Andy, during Norton’s surprise visit to his cell quotes a passage from the Bible. Andy quotes the verse “Watch ye, therefore, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh” (Redemption 49:39-49:44)..The context, the situation clearly makes it a use of subtle irony from Andy’s part but Norton seems to like it and recites his favourite passage, which is “I’m the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (Redemption 49:51-49:57).The passage brings out Norton’s desire to have all the convicts obey him. Norton certainly made use of the fourth component Mathiesen mentions and this too, rather than being intimately linked with rehabilitation, had very different purposes in Shawshank. According to Mathiesen
in contrast to the former three components, it seems as if the latter component to a large extent and for a long time was implemented in actual practice. Whether its implementation was actually followed by rehabilitation, a “return to competence”, is another matter. (37)
All the four components are brought to Shawshank by Andy’s activities. He made his inmates work with happiness for developing the Brooks Hatlen Memorial Library. As Red describes it:
The rest of us did our best to pitch in when and where we could. By the year Kennedy was shot, Andy had transformed a storage room smelling of rat turds and turpentine
into the best prison library in New England, complete with a fine selection of Hank Williams. (Redemption 01:17:47-01:18:02)
It shows that Andy made the convicts work for making their residence better, not for the desire to be temporarily out for a while. Andy’s emphasis on the importance of schooling is shown by his mentoring of Tommy. It is symbolically significant that Tommy, who ultimately is declared qualified in his examination, is shot dead by the torturous duo of Shawshank who would recklessly damage the growth Andy brought about any moment for blackmailing Andy or elongating his stay in Shawshank. Though Andy does not directly instil morality and discipline per se in the mind of his inmates, his presence has a notable positive influence on them. They appear effortlessly well-disciplined while sitting in the library. They are not shown to be ragging the new prisoners anymore when Tommy and his lot arrive. Besides, they work together for collecting rocks for Andy and seem to have developed honest empathy for Andy, signs of significant improvement. Brian Jarvis, while analysing the film, has pointed out how Andy gradually started playing the role of a proper warden in Shawshank. Jarvis opines that Andy’s activities in Shawshank help the film to highlight the effectiveness of a rehabilitative penal system. He also adds that portions of the film that show Andy encouraging his inmates to participate in positive activities help the film to rise above films that only critique the administration of prisons (197-198). The positive energy that Andy circulates is effective because it enables the prisoners to realize their capabilities and makes them feel an important part of the whole setup. What Norton did could either numb or harden a prisoner but Andy purged the prisoners by making them responsible and self-respectful.
The film appears to be a unique one for its depiction of Andy’s escape and its effects as well. While most other narratives end up glorifying the escape itself, this film has a plot that intimately imbricates the downfall of Norton- Hadley with Andy’s escape and the purification of the whole prison. He had not only planned his escape but also had taken the proof against Norton with him. This decision shows how much of importance he had given to saving the balance he had brought to Shawshank. Andy’s unmasking of Norton does not exclusively avenge the wrongs Norton committed against Andy. Rather it ensures the survival and further development of the rehabilitative setup Andy had created with his co-workers. The film does make use of stereotypes of torturing and tormenting administrators but it carefully avoids stereotyping the prison itself and its inhabitants. The inhabitants of Shawshank are mixture of good and bad but none of them are made ugly through otherizing. Moreover, the film emotionally engages the audience not only to the innocent protagonist who gets justice through escape but also to at least two people who are criminals and who continue to bear the ramification of institutionalization .Apart from breaking stereotypes about actual prisoners, this also problematizes institutionalization which contributes to the film’s distinction in the genre.
The resolution of the plot shows the film’s engagement with the problems prisoners were likely to face during their paroles. Apart from Red’s release (and the escape) the film shows only the release of Brooks Hatlen. In this emotional sequence, Brooks’ suffering is delineated with great care. He was out of the prison but certainly not rehabilitated. Shawshank had not made him self-dependant. It had only made him lose all importance in the world outside due to his prolonged stay. Brooks, in his letter to his old friends of Shawshank writes “Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Foodway, so they’d send me home” (Redemption 01:03:35-01:03:44),which shows how miserably Shawshank had failed and his last lines “I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me” (Redemption 01:04:11-01:04:16) clearly shows that fifty years of punishment could not make him feel he had changed at all. He still considered himself just a criminal. Towards the end of the film, Red starts facing nearly the same problems. He had spent forty years in Shawshank and though he was at ease compared to Brooks, he too started thinking of breaking his parole because he lacked friendship, lacked a purpose. Finally he was saved which shows how effective Andy’s influence on his fellow prisoners was.
Though the film does not offer what Andy did for Red as the ultimate solution to the problem of prolonged stay in prison, it certainly underscores the pitfalls of such prolonged punishments. Andy was given two consecutive life-sentences, Red stays in the prison for forty years, and Brooks for fifty. Tommy stayed in the prison during a period when it was functioning properly for a very brief period compared to the other three instances and had reformed quite significantly. Even Brooks or Red seem to have changed only because of the influence of a properly-run prison to a significant extent. Brooks spares Heywood only because Andy reminds him of who he was and makes him feel a changed man, at least for a while. Red, as mentioned before, is rejected twice and though his second rejection was during Andy’s stay in Shawshank , it occurred before he could start working for developing the library and many other significant moments that changed him. The ultimate impact of the changed atmosphere of the prison on Red gets visible when he appeared for third interview. In this third interview Red asserts with confidence:
There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here
or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then. A young... stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I wanna talk to him. I wanna try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. (Redemption 02:07:10-02:07:42)
Such lines clearly show how changed Red was and such a change was possible only once Shawshank started running properly, not because of the length of his sentence. In fact the longer sentences seem to only create problems for the convicts. As Red himself says, while discussing with Andy and the rest what is likely to happen to Brooks:
The man’s been in here 50 years, Heywood. 50 years. This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothing. Just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands. Probably couldn’t get a library card if he tried. You know what I’m trying to say? … I’m telling you, these walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on ’em. That’s institutionalized. (Redemption 59:19-01:00:06)
The film questions the validity of the method of giving prolonged sentences to convicts in these sections and that certainly is an important part of its politics. The film attests the effectiveness of rehabilitative policies that developed only when prisons gave importance to institutionalizing a prisoner instead of punishing them but along with it the film also shows the ramifications of institutionalizing a convict for too long. Derral Cheatwood speaks of there being four basic elements of prison films confinement, justice, authority, and release. According to him, the difference between the four eras of prison films is a result of the respective era’s way of handling the four elements. Darabont’s film is considered as a very interesting exception by Cheatwood. He suggests that The Shawshank Redemption is notably eclectic. It has elements of the Rehabilitation Era Prison films along with elements of Confinement era (226). Even more significant is the film’s deviation from its contemporary prison films. The Fortress (1992) and No Escape (1994), both of which depict futuristic prisons. Instead of dealing with real issues like rehabilitation or effects of institutionalization, they mainly offered spectacles. Darabont’s film consciously avoids that.
As mentioned before, an attempt to link the politics of the film with its contemporary prison policies will now be made. It is significant that this film, released in 1994,emphasises the problems of a prolonged stay in the prison. A paper of the book The Growth of Incarceration in the United States Exploring Causes and Consequences reads
In the 1980s and 1990s, state and federal legislators passed and governors and presidents signed laws intended to ensure that more of those convicted would be imprisoned and that prison terms for many offenses would be longer than in earlier periods.(70)
In fact the year of the film’s release, 1994, was a year that saw a vital law passed in this regard. The article “Tough on Crime How the United States Packed Its Own Prisons” reads
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, established even more federal aid for local law enforcement, offered grants to states willing to adopt TIS laws, set more mandatory minimum penalties, and restricted the federal appeals process for death row inmates. (Curtley n.p.)
Though the increased crime rate of this era was certainly a reason behind such developments but at the same time this policy of getting tougher on the prisoners had to be questioned and the film The Shawshank Redemption does that covertly by attempting to remind that getting tougher is not necessarily connected with make proper rehabilitation take place. Prisons could offer that scope because it offers ample time to its dwellers. As Red explains:
Prison time is slow time. So you do what you can to keep going. Some fellas collect stamps. Others build matchstick houses. Andy built a library. Now he needed a new project. Tommy was it. It was the same reason he spent years, shaping and polishing those rocks. The same reason he hung his fantasy girlies on the wall. In prison, a man will do most anything to keep his mind occupied. (Redemption 01:27:31-01:28:02)
The lines above indicate how the seclusion created by prison can be used positively. It is almost like taking a man back to the basics, the days of beginning from the scratch. Doing things that the man never did follow naturally and through those he or she can realize his/her true worth, differentiate his criminal nature from his/her creative nature and change in the true sense. Even this process however should not be stretched too far. When it is carried for too long, as in the case of Brooks, incarceration takes away the opportunity of returning to normal life. In such a state, the burnt-out convict is very likely to commit further crime, or ultimately put an end to his/her own life out of depression. Therefore, incarceration needs to ensure that rehabilitation of a convict is achieved within a reasonable period, so that the rehabilitated person can successfully find a position in the society. It is in this way and for these reasons, the film rises above the generic limitations of prison films and becomes a narrative of collective redemption.
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