Back Home in Prison

James Whitmore in “The Shawshank Redemption” (property of Castle Rock Entertainment)

One of my favorite movies, and arguably the best Stephen King adaptation ever made, is the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. The movie follows Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a man unjustly accused of his wife’s murder in 1947 Maine and sentenced to two life terms in the notorious and violent Shawshank Prison.

I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t seen the film, even though I’m sure you’re in the minority, but there is a scene I found very touching. It involves Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore), an old convict who spent so many years behind bars that he eventually became “institutionalized.”

In other words, he was in prison so long that it eventually became his home and the place he felt most comfortable.

After spending so many years in Shawshank, the time finally came for Brooks to be paroled. Only he didn’t want to leave, so he attacked a fellow inmate with a knife and would have slit his throat if Andy hadn’t talked him out of it.

Eventually, Brooks accepts his fate, packs his things and steps out of the same prison gate he entered as a young man. Old and alone, he wanders through the drastically-changed world in fear, marveling at how rushed and busy life had become. Brooks is placed into a halfway house and takes a job bagging groceries at a local supermarket, but his evenings are spent in quiet frustration and over time, his fear continues to grow.

Unable to adjust to life in the outside world, Brooks considers buying a gun and shooting his supervisor so he will be returned to prison. Obviously his rehabilitation worked because instead of choosing to harm others, he does something that only affects him: he commits suicide.

To me, this plot line was both poignant and timely since institutionalization is a growing problem among prison inmates, primarily those with longer sentences or a history of more serious offenses. Brooks Hatlen is a perfect example of what can happen when people spend more time behind bars than beyond them. Eventually, prison becomes the only home they have ever known and, in many cases, their next crime is nothing more than an attempt to return there.

I mention all of this because something similar happened in Chicago recently.

Unbehaun robs a bank (courtesy of MSN)

Walter Unbehaun—a 73-year-old ex-convict who spent most of his adult life behind bars and was released in 2011 after a ten-year stint for armed robbery—walked into a bank, showed a teller the gun tucked in his belt and left with more than $4000 in his pockets. He wore no disguise and even limped in with a cane, all of which was caught by surveillance cameras.

It didn’t take long for the police to catch up with Unbehaun. And when they did, he simply dropped his cane, confessed to the robbery and surrendered without as much as a complaint.

And why should he complain? If convicted, he could land back in prison for another 20 years. Put another way, he could be heading home for the rest of his life, which is what he wanted anyway.

Although I strongly believe that criminals should pay for their crimes—and doubt if true rehabilitation is even possible—it saddens me when someone has been incarcerated for so long that they come to need it. Institutionalization isn’t publicized very often—if at all—but it does happen. And if not for The Shawshank Redemption, I might have never heard about it, either.

I do give Walter Unbehaun credit, though. Robbing a bank isn’t a good thing, mind you, but at least he didn’t harm anyone in the process.

Brooks Hatlen would be proud.

Posted on February 16, 2013, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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