In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, there are a number of images and themes which are striking. There’s the obvious theme of hope, about which Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, says early on, “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Much later, Tim Robbins’ character, Andy, writes a note to Red, saying, “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” And of course, the movie ends with Red, hoping.

There’s a particularly poignant bit of verbage about institutionalization. Red tells Andy about this, about an old inmate named Brooks, who had become institutionalized. “These walls are kind of funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized. They send you here for life, that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyways.” (Of course, Red learns later that hope helps you retain that part.)

In the movie, Brooks doesn’t gain hope, and doesn’t break free of having been institutionalized. After being paroled, he writes a letter to his friends at “home” in prison:

Dear fellas, I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry. The parole board got me into this halfway house called “The Brewer”. And a job bagging groceries at the Foodway. It’s hard work and I try to keep up but my hands hurt most of the time. I don’t think the store manager likes me very much. Sometimes after work I go to the park and feed the birds. I keep thinking Jake might just show up and say hello. But he never does. I hope wherever he is he’s ok and makin’ new friends. I have trouble sleepin’ at night. I have bad dreams like I’m falling. I wake up scared. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun, an, an rob the Foodway so they’d send me home. I could shoot the manager while I was at it, sort of like a bonus. I guess I’m too old for that sort of nonsense anymore. I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay. I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me. [Standing on a table, he carves “Brooks was here” into a wood beam in his room. He closes his pocketknife, admires his work for a moment, then kicks out the table beneath him and hangs himself.]

In becoming institutionalized, you stop thinking for yourself, and those “thinking muscles” become atrophied. You no longer know how to function in the real world… in the free world.

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