The Walls We Build – Protection or Prison? A Meditation on the Shawshank Redemption
When I was a second year law student, a 2L, I applied for and got a job for the summer with the Attorney General’s Office of the State of Arkansas. This was the first real “law job” I had ever had. Oh, during my college days some of my friends, on occasion, would call me up and ask for legal advice. One friend had been stopped and in his eyes “harassed” by the police and wanted to sue. He felt his civil rights had been violated. I doled out some answer based on the law I knew but this was pretty much the blind leading the blind and in my estimation he had not been “harassed”. My new job, however, was the real thing. It was a chance to put into practice all those theories and principles those professor’s had been throwing at me for two years.
During this time it seems the State of Arkansas had been “ordered” by a Federal Judge to provide legal representation for inmates in its prison system. The Federal Courts had been particularly concerned that there might be persons in the prison system who were actually innocent or who had been unlawfully convicted and so to ensure that a fair trial had been had lawyers were to be made available by the State to assist inmates in being able to properly challenge their convictions in the Federal Courts through a writ of habeas corpus. Habeas Corpus means “deliver up the body” and in the English common law it came to be known as “the great writ”. The Federal Courts utilized the writ as a way of overseeing the constitutionality of the trial and appeals process in the states. Sometimes a defendant would not receive “a fair trial” and the state appellate process would also fail to find the error.
I was not licensed to practice law at the time but by virtue of a special rule a law student with two years of training working under the supervision of a licensed attorney could engage in a limited amount of law practice. The best thing about the job was that my interviews with the inmates were to be conducted in the evenings at the Tucker State Prison Farm which was a scant fifteen miles from where I lived in Pine Bluff. For those of you have been around awhile you might recall that this institution became famous, or rather infamous, as the site of the so called “Tucker Telephone” along with other instruments of torture which were used by prison wardens to quell disobedience and dissent.
Perhaps you saw the motion picture titled “Brubaker” starring Robert Redford which was about a reforming prison warden who took over a prison system in a southern state and found , to his horror, the remains of inmates buried after having been tortured with these “devices”. Well, that was based on the real life story of Thomas Murton who actually was that warden. Mr. Murton discovered the bodies and dutifully reported his findings to the press and media who exposed the horrors to the world. To his dismay Mr. Murton found that his boss, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, was not amused and fired him forthwith.
The atrocities at Tucker were echoed throughout the United States and lawsuit after lawsuit was filed seeking constitutional protections for inmates to insure that they were not unfairly convicted or subject to having their lives taken from them in an unconstitutional manner.
In my memories of those days one thing clearly and remarkably stands out. That summer, I would leave my mother and father at our home, just before, or just after, dinner and drive the fifteen miles to Tucker. I would park in the lot in front of the main gate. I then entered a series of gates whose locks clicked loudly shut as I proceeded. As I heard the locking of each gate I realized that I too was now an inmate and subject to the total and absolute control of the Arkansas prison system. But the real chill came in the form of the announcement of a policy. When I accepted the job offer from my boss, who was an assistant attorney general, he explained to me, in the most serious of terms possible about the “no hostage” policy. “If you are taken hostage during an attempt to escape, or prison rebellion you will not be accorded any special consideration and the law enforcement officers will shoot to kill if necessary regardless of your presence.”
Well, OK. At the grand old age of 23, or possibly 24 , and thrilled to actually be employed as a lawyer I refused to consider the full implications of that remark which was hurriedly followed with an uplifting caveat: “ Don’t worry, you are the inmates hope of becoming free again and they will not harm you” Right! Needless to say Paul always felt uneasy at work that summer. And I found many of the inmates to have become consummate “jailhouse lawyers” with a pretty detailed knowledge of legal authorities. Most of them were also consummate jailhouse liars as well and the facts as they saw them varied materially from the testimony of witnesses.
I do remember thinking about the way in which “life behind the walls” instilled a sense of restriction along with a strange sense of certainty and security. But, my full understanding of prison life and the lesson it portends for all of us did not come until just a few weeks ago when my wife and I watched a motion picture.
It started with an email from Netflix saying “a new movie had been added to Netflix: the Shawshank Redemption.” OK, I had heard of that movie some three of four years ago and was glad that Netflix had added a “new/old movie” that I actually wanted to watch. In case you have not seen the picture Shawshank is the fictional name of a state prison in Maine. The location used for the exterior shots were filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory, in Mansfield, pictured above. The story begins with Andy, played by Tim Robbins, the main character, sitting in a car with a bottle of whiskey and a loaded revolver by his side. He is obviously in torment and he alternately swigs the whiskey and looks at the gun. In the next scene a beautiful young woman is shown in the act of making love to a man. It turns out that the woman is Andy’s wife and the man is the local golf pro! We then cut to Andy sitting in the witness box testifying at his own trial in which he is accused of having murdered both the golf pro and his wife. While the prosecution’s case is “circumstantial” Andy is convicted and sentenced to serve two life terms in prison. Andy protests that he is innocent, and in the end the movie bears that out, but he is sentenced anyway.
Andy arrives at Shawshank and after weathering a brutal intake procedure meets Red, played by Morgan Freeman. Red has served some twenty years of a life sentence. He goes before the parole board every year and every year despite his model conduct his parole request is denied. Red, however, is a “go to guy” who can get almost anything you want for the right price. Andy, an amateur geologist, throws Red a bit of a curve when he asks him to obtain a “rock pick” for him. A rock pick is a very small pick ax used by geologists to chip at rocks and stones in order to analyze them. Later in the picture Andy also asks Red if he could get “Rita Hayworth” for him, and Red with a sardonic grin says “oh sure, I’ll get her, but it may take a few weeks.” And, Red delivers on his promise in a vicarious way by producing a life size poster of Ms. Hayworth.
The turning point and piece de resistance of the picture comes when Andy and Red are urgently summoned by another inmate to quell an emergency situation which involves the prison librarian, Brooks. Brooks, who is ably played by James Whitmore, is in the midst of holding Haywood, another inmate, hostage with a letter opener at his throat threatening to kill him. It seems that Haywood had learned that Brooks was to be granted parole. Liking Brooks and thinking the news would be welcomed Haywood breaks the news to Brooks. Quite unexpectedly Brooks grabs the letter opener along with Haywood and threatens to kill him if he utters another word. Andy and Red arrive on the scene and can’t quite figure out what caused Brooks to react to seemingly good news in that way. The next scenes portray Brooks, a man in his seventies who has spent most of his life behind prison walls, trying to adjust to living outside in the “real world”. Back at Shawshank Red and Andy discuss the situation and it becomes clear to them that Brooks, having lived almost his entire life behind the walls of Shawshank, had become dependent upon its walls and its routines to maintain his existence. He had become institutionalized. Once those walls were removed Brooks was much like a turtle with no shell – exposed and vulnerable. In his day to day struggle to fit in and survive on the outside he contemplates that he might just “rob the store where he works and even shoot the manager” in order to be sent back to the only home he had ever known. In the end he decides to leave “freedom” which has caused so much fear and anxiety by hanging himself.
Then it’s Red’s turn. After Andy manages to engineer a successful escape and also expose the corruption which had been going on in the prison at the same time, Red is paroled and finds himself in the same fix that Brooks had been in but in his case there is a way out besides death. Andy has left him instructions on what to do if he is paroled and following those instructions he finds his way to the Mexican Village where Andy is building a new life.
It occurs to me that despite the lack of physical walls we all have a tendency to build invisible walls around our lives to defend and preserve what we feel is vital and important. When new challenges are presented which would require us to live beyond those walls we become terrorized and anxious just like Brooks. We turn away and refuse to even consider moving beyond the walls we have built. And, in time, and in our carelessness, our protection becomes our prison. We go about our routines without pausing to think about what might be on the other side of the wall. We fail to stop and listen for any suggestion that to really fulfill our lives we need to be able to tear down a wall so as to permit growth. We become “grand illusionists” convincing ourselves that the “status quo” is truly our home and we overlook the call that comes from without. I think we must always be sensitive to “the call”. As I believe God truly does speak to us. He might speak to us as he did to Samuel in the cool of the night, or he might speak to us through the speech or actions of another. But our failure to listen, to heed, makes our walls of protection an impenetrable prison which then becomes our tomb. God will not force us, but he will continue to call. If we continue to ignore then what was a flame will become an ember and our hope of fulfillment and peace will perish.
So I am now resolved to beware of the comfort of my own existence. I will always endeavor to stop and listen. It may be that I will be called to remove myself from my “comfort zone” and find a way to escape the prison I have built for myself by daring to tear down a wall, or two. This may require sacrifice and endurance but I believe that unlike Brooks, the way need not lead to death as God does not desire that. Rather, as in the case of Red, he desires that we follow the guidance provided by the Holy Spirit and his only Son, Our Lord, just as Andy provided guidance for Red.