Exactly What They Take

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Frank Darabont’s 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption is an enduring classic of American cinema. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, it tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a young banker sentenced to life imprisonment in the tough Shawshank State Penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover, a crime he says he didn’t commit. That’s tough material for any audience, and when the film was first released it all but tanked at the box office. But eventually moviegoers came to embrace the morality tale at the heart of Andy’s redemption, and the film went on to outstanding critical acclaim, recognised as one of the best films of our time. Most of the most quotable quotes come from Andy’s fellow inmate Ellis “Red” Redding, played with understated dignity by the great Morgan Freeman, whose gentle narration becomes a quiet commentary of Dufresne’s desperate struggle to maintain his self-worth in the face of brutality and hopelessness.

Picture: Sebastian Leon Prado

Source: Unsplash

But of all the memorable characters the film throws up the one that really struck a chord with me was the tragic librarian/trustee Brooks Hatlen, played by veteran character actor James Whitmore, the elderly inmate with whom Andy is assigned to work in the prison library. After serving fifty years in Shawshank Brooks is eventually paroled, but he finds life impossible to adjust to on the outside. Alone and lonely in his freedom, lost in a modern world he can’t relate to, Brooks finally commits suicide.

“Prison walls are funny,” observes Red’s commentary. “First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them.”

When I first saw Brooks’ story in The Shawshank Redemption I was immediately reminded of an elderly aboriginal gentleman I met in the old Boggo Road Gaol many years ago when I was a very young solicitor. Illiterate and largely uneducated, the prisoner asked to see me because he had a problem. He told me had been in prison for over forty years, and the authorities had recently discovered he should have been released decades ago. Somehow he had fallen through the cracks.

But that wasn’t his problem. His problem was the authorities were now planning to release him, and he didn’t want to go. He had spent his whole adult life in prison, everyone he knew was there, and it was all he knew, his only home.

As Red observed of Shawshank, “They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take – the part that counts anyway.”

Of course all that was a long time ago, and I always thought that kind of ugly oversight was a thing of the dim, distant past. It turns out I was wrong. Earlier this year, in response to a parliamentary question on notice, Attorney General Jarrod Bleijie admitted that between March 2012 and March2014 the state accidentally kept 40 prisoners behind bars for a total of more than 120 days beyond their release dates. A spokesman for Mr Bleijie put it all down to “confusion”, and assured such oversights were rectified as quickly as possible, although no compensation was actually paid to the unlawfully detained prisoner. Mr Bleijie himself deflected criticism by pointing out that under the previous Labor Government, between 2010 and 2012 there were 36 such unlawful detentions totalling a staggering 522 days.

The elephant in the room in all this is the fact that it’s not the cashed-up convict with well-resourced lawyers who finds himself the victim this kind of “confusion.” It’s invariably the poor and uneducated, with little or no family or social support, who somehow manage to get lost within the system.

I wonder what Red Redding would have said about all that confusion.

Chris Nyst

Gold Coast Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker

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