The Shawshank Redemption Illustrates Key Concepts in the Sociological Study of Prisons and Penology

These are remarks made at the Christie Theater in Green Bay on November 9, 2009.

Frank Darabont’s 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, based on the novella by Stephen King titled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, is a superb film, which, while not doing well upon release, has since developed a cult following. The film has two of my favorite actors in Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

Scene from The Shawshank Redemption.

It may seem a little odd to think of this as a Stephen King story, but King also wrote The Green Mile, which also concerns the criminal justice system. These are, in their own way, horror stories.

Shawshank State Prison, is a fictional penitentiary in Maine. The movie is set mostly in the period from the late 1940s through the 1960s. The last part takes the story in the 1980s. What I want to do in my remarks is situate King’s fictional prison in the context of real history.

The penitentiary system is a relatively new social phenomenon, scarcely two hundred years old. It emerged, along with its philosophy of deprivation of liberty, on both sides of the Atlantic ocean in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Built upon the foundation of jails, workhouses, and disciplinary programs in England and France, the US system served as a way of organizing labor displaced by the transition from agricultural capitalism, the result of improvements in agriculture and the shift in capitalism towards industrial and finance capitalism. The development of penitentiaries – and the development of the criminal justice system more generally – tracks the development of capitalism.  

US reformers – Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Caleb Lownes, Zebulon Brockway, to name a few prominent figures – were inspired by the Italian juridical theorist Cesare Beccaria and the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham to build a system that moved away from the cruel physical punishments one saw during the latter Middle Ages with the rise of agricultural capitalist production. 

Reformers stressed rehabilitation, which they conceived as putting criminals to work. City jails rebuilt and state prisons built to put convicts to hard labor. The sources of labor were unskilled laborers from urban areas and transient agricultural workers. The state of Pennsylvania and the Quakers led the charge of prison reform.  

In the 1770s, Walnut Street Jail was established and Lownes was appointed its first warden. Dubbed “the cradle of the penitentiary,” the jail became the model prison for new penology. Several penitentiaries followed, all within span of 16 years (1799-1815). The Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania was the paradigm.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

The evolution of the system was marked by its cyclical character, which correlated with the nation’s economic cycles. The initial period following the War of Independence was marked by a rapidly growing economy.  Labor demand outstripped labor supply, so prisons provided ready labor pool for state and capital. Prison industries were geared towards urban industries and convicts performed labor-intensive work.

Following War of 1812, the nation entered a recession. High levels of unemployment were seen by early 1820s, followed by a financial panic 1837 and a depression. One third of workforce out of work and aggregate wages fell 50 percent. Prison industries lost profitability.  As a result, a movement emerged to get tough on crime. Prisoners should not work; should be undesirable places. The liberal reformer was “too lenient. ” To be effective, deterrence required retribution.  Brutal physical punishment were instituted including the treadmill, stocks, irons, whippings. 

This cycle between rehabilitation and retribution has been the pattern right up until the present.  When the economy recovered in the 1840s and labor demand grew rapidly in manufacturing and agricultural work declined, labor reintroduced in Auburn and Pennsylvania systems. Treadmill and isolation systems were eliminated. Prison labor was seen as useful producing revenues for administrators. Captive workers were used as weapons against crafts system. This period coincided with the emergence of industrialization.

After 1850s, with large-scale immigration and the widespread deployment of labor-saving machinery, the growing industrial reserve – the “dangerous classes” – became a problem. A depression followed in 1857-1858 reducing demand for prison labor and harsh punishments came back into effect. Prisons swelled. 

During much of the period during the development of the penitentiaries, there was slavery in the South. There was no penitentiary system there, but what some have called the “great penitentiary,” that is the plantation system, what was, in fact, a giant system of forced labor camps. 

Before the development of the penitentiary system in the north, convict labor was widely used. Convicts were used throughout the south, as well, before the large-scale introduction of African labor. After chattel slavery was ended with the Civil War penal slavery was reintroduced in the south, first in the form of convict leasing (1880s-1920s), then in the form of chain gang, which persists to this day.  Elements of the chain gang system appear in the movie.

James Whitmore plays the character Brooks Hatlen, who fails to adjust to life outside of prison. Some may be perplexed by this, but various problems confront long-term prisoners after release that lead to a range of response. 

Donald Clemmer coined the term “prisonization” in his 1940 book The Prison Community. He defines prisonization as “the taking on, in greater or lesser degree, of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary” by inmates. Clemmer’s ideas stimulated the development of a literature on prison socialization and culture, the basic premise of which is that, over time, incarcerated individuals will acquire the values, norms and beliefs held and practiced by other inmates. 

Prisonization is a process of assimilation into inmate society that is characterized by the adoption of a particular constellation of norms, values, and beliefs that shape the prisoner’s worldview and undermine the goals of reform. The inmate code isolates the prisoner from the influence of penitentiary staff by fostering the prisoner’s allegiance to his fellow prisoners. Devotion to the code represents a type of solidary opposition.

The new rules are distinct from both those of the institution and of the wider society. The more true someone holds to prison culture, the more he or she rejects the rules of prison authorities and those of the outside community. Stanton Wheeler puts the dynamic this way: “The net result of the process [is] the internalization of a criminal outlook, leaving the ‘prisonized’ individual relatively immune to the influence of a conventional value system.”

According to Clemmer, prisonization plays the primary role in determining the success of the prisoner’s adjustment to outside life. The learned set of values and norms that replace the inmate’s conventional beliefs and practices inoculate him or her against pro-social influences upon returning to mainstream society. The general hypothesis is that empirical research should find a negative relationship between the degree of prisonization and the success of rehabilitation.

The deleterious effects of imprisonment depend on the frequency and intensity of associations with other inmates and the length of time spent in the penitentiary setting. Putting the matter simply, the more time inmates spends with other prisoners, and the longer their sentences, the more prisonized they will become.

Clemmer identifies numerous structural elements shaping prison society, such as the antagonistic relationship between inmates and prison staff, the existence of cell-house groups and work gangs, race-ethnic stratification, and so forth. 

Many observers attribute prisonization to the austere realities of incarceration. Like mental hospitals and concentration camps, the penitentiary is a species of what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “total institutions.” In a total institution, all activity occurs according to rigid rules and tight schedules. Shorn of responsibility for basic life choices and activities, prisoners become almost wholly dependent upon the regimen of the system.

Goffman believes total institutions cause “self-mortification,” deadening people’s autonomy, identity and willpower. In a similar fashion, Ann Cordilia find that prisons “desocialize” inmates and make them reliant upon authority, while Kathryn Watterson characterizes women’s prisons as a “concrete womb”—only behind prison walls do the prisonized feel secure. 

Gresham Sykes, used the idea of the “pains of imprisonment,” to describe how prisoners adapt to prison life. James Austin and John Irwin report an affective dimension to these pains, finding among inmates’ feelings of powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, detachment, and alienation. From this perspective, the culture of penitentiaries in which inmates are prisonized is caused by their anomic state of existence, as inmates, struggling to make sense of their world, develop their own normative and value systems. 

To the degree that prisonization is a factor in prisons, the phenomenon creates problems for the goals of rehabilitation. Accustomed to prison culture, convicts find life on the outside challenging. Just how problematic prisonization makes reform depends on length of confinement and the degree of assimilation to prison culture.

According to Clemmer, as a general rule, the longer inmates stay in prison, the more prisonized they become, the less likely they are to successfully adjust to society, and the more likely they are to recidivate after release.

From Goffman’s perspective, dependence upon constant surveillance and authority makes autonomous existence beyond prison difficult. A certain percentage of convicts find it impossible, and make their way back behind penitentiary walls.

Enjoy the movie. With a little sociological imagination, you should be able to appreciate how a fictional drama can illustrate key social science concepts in the study of the penitentiary and modern penal philosophy and practice.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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