The ghastly reality of ‘Shawshank’

Posted May 26, 2009, at 6:54 p.m.

I went to my son’s college graduation this week in Ohio. It’s pretty far from Maine so the whole family couldn’t make an appearance the way they did for my daughter’s graduation last year in New York. It was just his sister Becky, their dad, John’s best friend, Peter, and me.

With so few in attendance we managed to break free and do the one thing John had been hoping to do since he set foot in Ohio back in 2005. We drove to Mansfield and toured the Ohio State Reformatory.

Never heard of the Ohio State Reformatory? And you call yourself a Stephen King fan? That’s the prison they used to film the movie classic “The Shawshank Redemption.” A total box office disappointment — adapted from the King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” — this brilliant film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Unfortunately, it lost at nearly every turn to the cinema smash “Forrest Gump.” Since then, “Shawshank” has come into its own. It currently holds the first place spot on the Internet Movie Data Base’s top 250 movies of all time.

The Ohio State Reformatory was founded in the late 19th century as a place for young first-time offenders to go and learn a trade — like woodworking — and then return to society having paid their debt for past wrongs and because of their newly acquired skills, be less likely to reoffend.

You might remember in the movie a young character named Tommy learns to fix cars while at Shawshank.

But something happened to the penal system in the 20th century and jails started becoming more about punishment and less about reformation. This aging prison — preserved by locals with the help of thousands of fans because of its Hollywood notoriety — tells that story of retribution.

Walking through the aged facility, seeing the cells, the shower room, the death row cages, and the solitary confinement area — which can only be inadequately described as a lightless, airless, fetid dungeon — I began to think of the ghastly reality that place was for so many; 2,200 people living at times four or more to a cell, bathing only once a week, imagine the smell.

Now I know why states tear down prisons once they close them. No matter how historic the building, nobody in government would want to keep the evidence of criminal warehousing, overcrowding and abuse. No compassionate person could imagine another human being living that way and think of it as anything less than a waste of human life.

Now, if vengeance is your bag, you might like the Ohio State Reformatory. You might believe that violent criminals deserve a little violence in return — even if it’s meted out by sadistic guards, power-tripping wardens or other inmates. If you do feel that way, be sure to be candid with those feelings if you ever get called up for jury duty.

Seeing the real Shawshank suggests that Stephen King’s story and the subsequent movie appealed to so many of us because of our fascination with the unknown when it comes to bad guys and the institutions that house them. Criminals and their punishments intrigue folks who are too good or too frightened or too lucky to wind up behind bars.

But imagine if you were the main character, Andy Dufresne, who is innocent. Imagine the real-life horror of being wrongly accused and subsequently locked away forever. In the movie Shawshank, we all marvel at Andy Dufresne’s ability to remain a good man. He’s victimized and violated by various characters: sometimes other inmates, sometimes prison employees and sometimes the warden himself.

But he never loses his innocence. He never surrenders his dignity. And through this example he teaches some bad guys to be good.

The real-life Shawshank wasn’t ancient history. Ohio State Reformatory still housed inmates less than 20 years ago. Staring into those tiny solitary confinement cells, I wondered if any prison could really provide redemption. We are the incarceration capital of the world — PBS says “5 percent of our adult male population is under some form of adult correctional supervision.” How many of us, if falsely imprisoned, could stay good? And how many guilty folks are actually redeemed?

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@

hotmail.com.

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