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Frank Fernandez


Guilty Until Proven Innocent:

A Critical Explication of

Prison Writings and The Shawshank Redemption

In our modern society, we are taught that the American judicial system

is one that stands for truth and justice, but unfortunately for many citizens,

that is not always the case. According to a study by Ohio State University,

about 10,000 people in the United States may be convicted of serious

crimes each year (Spring 1). This means of the over 2.4 million inmates in

the United States prison population, between 2.5 and 5 percent of these

individuals are wrongfully imprisoned. Leonard Peltiers Prison Writings and

Stephen Kings The Shawshank Redemption highlight the injustices in this

system, especially through the experiences of main characters Leonard

Peltier and Andy Dufresne, as well as the themes of injustice and inhumane

conditions within the prisons themselves.

First, we will examine the characters of Leonard Peltier and Andy

Dufresne, as they were both wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not

have a part in. In Prison Writings, Peltier is charged in the death of two FBI

agents on the Jumping Bull compound, as he tells his side of the incident and

the circumstances that led to his conviction of two consecutive life

sentences. Instead of being given a fair trial, Peltier is subject to fabricated

evidence and false witness testimony that places him at the scene of the

crime. Former Attorney General of the United States Ramsey Clark referred

to the proceedings as, A trial that disgraced, and continues to disgrace, the

American judicial system (Peltier 3). Since his conviction in 1977, further

information has been produced that contradicts previous statements by

witnesses and federal agents. Despite this new information, Peltier remains

imprisoned and has been denied freedom on a number of occasions , even

though he maintains that he was targeted as a scapegoat since three other

American Indian Movement members (Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, and Jimmy

Eagle) were all found innocent. The character of Peltier represents the

struggle of many Native Americans in the United States, subject to the will of

the white man and mistreated due to the color of their skin. Throughout

Prison Writings, Peltier attempts to convey that while he feared being killed

while moving from prison to prison, he knew that he needed to be strong and

maintain a demeanor that showed he would not be intimidated by the

actions of the prison guards and other authority figures. This strong front

seemingly left these authority figures in awe of Peltier and helped him on a

number of occasions to avoid violence. He also compares himself to another

famous Native American, Sitting Bull, in regards to his actions during the

Jumping Bull incident. Peltier knows that this defense was necessary for the

safety of his people, while the white man only sees his actions as criminal.

He says, Sitting Bull knew the white mans vengeance would be swift and

merciless. Like me, even if he hadnt personally killed Custer or anyone else,

he was still what theyd call an aider and abettor. All Indians, after all, are

aiders and abettors when they stand up to defend the slaughter of their

people (Peltier 13). His love and care for his people and their safety

outweighs his care for his own well-being most of the time. As they attempt

to escape from the federal agents and police after the incident at Oglala,

Peltier realizes that many of the people, made up of mostly women and

children, are in great fear of the situation and believe they will not make it

out alive. Peltier makes them all stop and take part in a prayer, showing his

commitment to the traditional values of his people and ability to lead even in

times of high stress. His spirituality gives him the strength to carry on and he

embodies the warrior spirit that he speaks about multiple times in Prison

Writings. Peltier also serves as a human representation of the struggle of

indigenous people, not only in the United States but across the world. As

Ramsey Clark puts it, Here in the United States, his voice, and the urgent

message of indigenous people everywhere, has been muffled if not silenced.

Those who put him behind bars and insist on keeping him there after nearly

a quarter century believe he has been consigned to the dustbin of history,

along with the cause of native people everywhere (Peltier 2). While the

government has shown for over a century that this is the case, through his

writing we can see that Peltier hopes to keep his voice heard and the voices

of all those oppressed, including those who paved the way for him.

When it comes to Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, he

relates to Peltier through his wrongful conviction for two murders he did not

commit, that of his wife and her lover. Even though he knows that he is

innocent, the guilt of his wifes murder weighs heavy on Andy, as he

proclaims, I didnt pull the trigger, but I drove her away. Thats why she

died. Because of the way that I am (The Shawshank Redemption). In a way,

his prison sentence is his punishment for pushing his wife away, and now he

must make up for this. The way Andy does this is through providing gifts

for his fellow inmates, including the library that he creates from a previously

unused section of Shawshank. This is his penance for his wifes death,

educating the inmates and providing them with a mental escape from

Warden Samuel Norton, the head of the prison (Bossik 1). Andy continues to

educate by tutoring his fellow inmate, Tommy, and provides a light of hope

as Red, the narrator and his close friend, describes it. Much like Peltier, Andy

is looked up to and is someone his peers can learn from, an object of

fascination for many (Quinn 1). He is seen as the one who will speak out

against the guards and manipulate the warden due to his ability to provide

financial help, including laundering money for the prison. While this puts him

in good standing with those in charge, it also hurts his ability to ever leave

Shawshank because the warden fears Andy will turn him in once he is

released. His talents end up being his downfall in a sense, as he ends up

spending more than 20 years locked up before escaping. One thing that

keeps Andy going throughout his sentence is the feeling of hope that he will

one day earn his freedom from Shawshank, a hope that is widened when

Tommy tells him about a prisoner he knew from a previous facility named

Elwood, who admitted to murdering Andys wifes lover. This revelation by

Tommy, as described by Red, is the key to open a cage in Andys mind that

contains a tiger named hope (Quinn 5). With this feeling firmly in his mind,

Andy is able to carry on when he feels as though he cannot carry on,

especially when he is placed into solitary confinement. In a letter addressed

to Red, Andy writes that hope is a good thing, which is all that Red has in

the end after over 40 years behind bars (Quinn 5). Andys optimism even in

a difficult situation as this provides other inmates with the opportunity to

believe that not all is lost as many may have previously foreseen.

The second element to examine from both Prison Writings and The

Shawshank Redemption are the recurring themes of injustice and inhumane

treatment. Starting with Prison Writings once again, injustice is at the

forefront. Peltier describes the incident at the Jumping Bull compound from

his perspective, one that differs greatly from that which got him imprisoned

for the last 40 years. His actions on that fateful day were out of fear and self-

defense, especially after years of civil war between the GOON squad and

AIM on the Pine Ridge reservation (Peltier 9). Peltier maintains that the

incident was unlike the infinite, gory, and often fabricated detail described

by the FBI and government prosecutors afterward (Peltier 9) . The theme of

injustice would continue, with Peltier being illegally extradited from Canada

and put on trial in Fargo, North Dakota, a city with a history of prejudice

toward Native Americans. His fellow AIM members, Butler and Robideau,

were found not guilty in their Cedar Rapids trial after the jury was told of the

overwhelming evidence that showed government compliance with the

GOONs terrorist actions and the FBIs flagrant misconduct at nearly every

stage of their investigation (Peltier 15-16). Unfortunately, Peltiers judge did

not allow any of this evidence to be brought into his trial, which would have

certainly proven his innocence as well. Instead, the testimony of a woman

named Myrtle Poor Bear placed Peltier at the scene, even though her

affidavit changed on more than one occasion. This gross injustice was the

push that gave the jury the evidence necessary to pin the crime on Peltier

and sentence him. The theme of inhumane prison conditions began even

before Peltier stood trial, as he was moved from prison to prison leading up

to 1977. In regards to prison, Peltier says, They dont just take your freedom

away from you, but they demean and humiliate you whenever and wherever

possible. They create vastly more crime and injustice and inhumanity than

they ever prevent (Peltier 17). He goes on to detail special treatment

towards him, including being placed in high security cellblocks and having

guards stationed directly outside of his cell at all hours of the day and night.

He was coaxed by guards to commit violent acts through verbal abuse,

mainly aimed at his race. However, Peltier did not let their hateful words lead

him into more trouble as he knew this would only give them reason to beat

or kill him. As he was transferred to jails around the region, Peltier was met

with continued mistreatment, I was fed cold, tasteless meals, denied

exercise, visits from my family, even showers (Peltier 22). The injustice and

inhumane conditions faced by Peltier are representative of the larger

injustice for generations of Native Americans in the United States. After

being denied clemency in 2001 by President Bill Clinton, Peltier issued a

statement in which he expanded the sense of injustice to the larger issue of

the emptiness of the nations talk about reconciliation with American

Indians (Endres 7). Unfortunately for Peltier and his native brothers and

sisters, nothing significant continues to go on to aid Native Americans in

their struggle and provide a positive outlook for these indigenous people.

Much like Peltier, Andy Dufresne is met with injustice during his trial in

The Shawshank Redemption. Despite the damning evidence placing Andy at

the scene of this double murder, he maintains his innocence (Quinn 2). While

he admits to having a gun with him on the night of the incident, he claims

that he disposed of it in a nearby river, which the prosecuting lawyer claims

is a lie since the weapon was never recovered during a search. To this

statement, Andy replies, Since I am innocent of this crime, I find it

decidedly inconvenient that the gun was never found (The Shawshank

Redemption). After he is sentenced to two life sentences, one for each

victim, Andy begins his time at Shawshank and the inhumane treatment

begins. A gang of men known at the Sisters beat and rape him on multiple

occasions, while Andy attempts to defend himself and the guards look the

other way. The inhumane conditions are furthered by the multiple forms of

isolation within the prison. The bars, strict schedules, sadistic keepers, and

predatory Sisters only add a sense of entrapment and suffocation to these

layers of isolation (Quinn 4). This sense of isolation results in inmates being

unable to readjust to life after prison, including Red. He has been denied

parole year after year and lost nearly all hope of freedom, until Andy comes

into his life and reintroduces him to the idea that he never really let go of in

the first place (Quinn 4). Both of these recurring themes play a major role in

the lives of the inmates in The Shawshank Redemption.

After examining both works and considering these elements, we can

see how the wrongful conviction of the characters of Leonard Peltier and

Andy Dufresne, as well as the recurring themes of injustice and inhumane

treatment, show the major problems within the American judicial system.

Prison Writings not only exemplifies the struggle of Leonard Peltier, but the

Native American population within the United States. The oppression faced

by one man shows how the system has been set up to result in failure for

these people and indigenous people overall. The Shawshank Redemption

exemplifies the American prison systems mistreatment of inmates and the

difficulty of life after prison for those who become institutionalized. Overall,

both works do an excellent job to educate the audience on the failure of the

justice system to convict the proper individuals and how life in prison is a

terrible experience for inmates. In each case, these men were guilty until

proven innocent.

Works Cited
Endres, Danielle. "American Indian Activism and Audience: Rhetorical

Analysis of Leonard Peltiers Response to Denial of Clemency."

Communication Reports 24.1 (2011): 1-11. Routledge. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

Fiddler, Michael. "Projecting the Prison: The Depiction of the Uncanny in The

Shawshank Redemption." Crime Media Culture (2007): 1-15. University of

Greenwich. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

Quinn, Lesley. "Analysis of Major Characters of Rita Hayworth and the

Shawshank Redemption." Academia. Academia. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.


ESTIMATES." Research News. Ohio State University. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.