Learning about America from prison flicks


Hollywood’s still got it going on as a vector for transmitting American cultural values. An opinion piece circulating online argues that Prison Break and The Shawshank Redemption offer a window on America’s criminal justice system and a view into the American psyche. In a condensed, possibly plagiarized version, the piece also appears in this week’s issue of Complete Entertainment (完全娱乐, formerly Big Star), where I first ran across it.

Note: your correspondent has not watched much of Prison Break, though the show has quite a following in China. A fan-run website offers script translations and subtitled clips, as well as news translated from the official Fox website. It also provides BT links for downloading episodes. Alternatively, there’s this site that provides entire subtitled episodes for online Flash-movie viewing.

Prison Break as a view into American prison administration

by Top Gudong (天地一咕咚)

Prison is a place to punish criminals. On high alert, strictly regimented, it easily gives rise to “violent enforcement.” If there is to be equality in this place, it needs to be established on a foundation of equality. […] I once read something by a KDNet fellow by the name of Shawshanker who raised questions about The Shawshank Redemption‘s “Asian thought” – he could not understand why the warden would permit Dufresne to write a letter to congress, and why congress would grant Dufresne’s request.

I answered that this was because America’s criminals are not criminals, are not “non-persons”, but rather are equal “citizens undergoing punishment.” The Bible explains that all men have original sin and are in need of redemption. And since we all are people in need of redemption, punishment, too, needs to avoid fear; aggressive misuse of power is inappropriate. This citizen certainly could write a letter to congress; if the warden did not let him write, he would be violating the first amendment in the Bill of Rights, and the warden would be sent to prison. The congressional representatives, for their part, were selected by the votes of citizens; they serve all the people, even those criminals undergoing punishment who still retain a citizen’s right to write letters. The representatives could deny Dufresne’s request to enlarge the library (in fact it was the pressure of one letter a week that finally moved them to agree) — but they would run the risk of having the public reject them and turn them out. Inmates may not have the right to vote, but do not forget that their families have the right to vote. And they can participate in elections after they are released from prison and vote you out. You cannot ignore this power.

With today’s popularity of American TV, Prison Break is on fire. The American way of thinking is revealed directly, right up there on screen. […] Scriptwriting, directors’ artistry, cinematographers’ tricks — this show reproduces Hollywood’s moviemaking techniques in their entirety. “Using movie methods to shoot TV” has been popular in the US in recent years, and has become the new pillar of world entertainment.

Compared to Hollywood movies, the length and breadth of American television shows allows them to show off more of the writers’ thinking. Watching Korean TV, I find that their “ideas about love” are stuck in the middle ages; parents boldly interfere in their children’s right to choose a mate. In Japanese and Hong Kong television, there is no lack of similar content. Qiong Yao is even more of a tireless champion of this stuff. And Asian audiences always eat this stuff up, it seems. Willfully or unconsciously, writers indulge these plot points. If the same shows were aired in the US, the first reaction of American audiences would probably be: why don’t those children sue? Why don’t they care about their own rights?

It’s the same with the freedom of children to choose their own careers. The governor’s daughter in Prison Break actually holds the not-so-respectable position of prison doctor, and there’s nothing her father can do about it. He knows that if he interfered he would break the law and be sent to prison. American film and television would never show a Qiong Yao-style story of parents interfering for reasons of money or station in their children’s freedom to choose a job or spouse. It’s not that they can’t write them or that the US doesn’t have this sort of story, but rather that writing those stories would go against the American way of thinking and would find it hard to please audiences.

In Prison Break and The Shawshank Redemption, though there is violence in prison administration, we can see no trace of any soldiers. Only police. Soldiers have no means, no right, to mobilize; the Constitution proscribes the American military from interfering in domestic affairs. Even during last year’s “catastrophe of the century” – hurricane Katrina – it was only after a long delay that the army was at last permitted to assist the rescue in a limited fashion. Americans seldom see scenes of “soldiers and citizens fighting catastrophe together.” Even something as large as 9.11 had only police and firefighters at work.

In Prison Break there is also the following puzzling scenario:

An impatient warden can tune out the governor.

At his pleasure, the governor can tune out the president.

The vice-president can frequently disagree with and contradict the president.

The governor’s daughter can tune out the governor.

In theory, criminals can mostly ignore the prison administration. Beating prisoners is a serious offence, and discovery leads to immediate dismissal. And after being sent packing they’ll have a hard time finding other work. Even a capital offender like Lincoln is given no uncertain respect days and even hours before his execution. No one questions the rights that anyone ought to possess, even if he has committed some monstrous crime.

Let us turn again to the prison doctor: inmates are actually able to enter and exit the prison hospital with complete freedom (and the prison actually has such a good hospital), and the prison administration has no right to interfere with any medical work.

Within the walls of an American prison is a large yard. Note that this yard is set up inside the prison (not some project for show set up outside the prison gate) for the use of criminals to exercise. It’s not like other countries which set them up outside the prison. We typically see prisons surrounded by a garden, and prisoners are not permitted to exercise in this garden. It is for visitors to appreciate. Inside the prison is only flat cement.

In Prison Break you will find that writing a letter to some congressman is kids’ stuff; under suitable conditions, you can make the bold request to have a date with your girlfriend, and during the date, you can make love to your girlfriend practically out in the open!!! Even illiterate Americans feel their personal rights deep within their marrow. They are accustomed to them – someone might go his whole life without feeling the existence of his what’s inside, but once it is gone he’ll feel something. Fernando Sucre met with his girlfriend in prison and the guards had to grit their teeth in frustration — they wanted to slaughter that brazen fellow right there but couldn’t do a thing, since this was one of the personal rights prisoners have. Once prisoners’ rights come into the picture, getting upset doesn’t do anything.

In the eyes of the screenwriters, and in standard Hollywood practice, political figures are not to be trusted. They are selfish, suspicious, and blameworthy. They are completely unsympathetic and are castigated mercilessly. American writers particularly enjoy putting criminals in the White House, the Department of Defense, the State Department, and in Congress, and they like choosing the president, vice-president, or department head as the “fantasy evil antagonist”. You could say that on the small and large screens, Americans don’t hesitate to take those who hold power and “knock them to the ground and give them a kick.” American thinking is: politics is a dirty business; politicians are never to be trusted and must always be treated with suspicion. Keep a tight reign on them, and don’t let them set one foot outside the lines. If there are any suspicious movements, then terminate them with extreme prejudice. You’d most certainly never see something like what happened in Taiwan where millions of people took to the streets putting Bianbian at his wits’ end, or absurdities like “good folks are at home sighing, while the bad ones are onstage singing.” The most difficult thing in the world is to realize “the dream of putting rulers in a cage” (says George Bush). And Hollywood and American TV has realized this dream. Like the American constitution says, when the rights of the people are not guaranteed, the people have the right to topple an oppressive government. “Prison Break” is a symbol of the right of the American people to pursue freedom through extraordinary means.

In Prison Break and Shawshank Redemption, everything is merely metaphor. I discovered that in Shawshank Redemption, “everyone in prison is a good guy” (including murderers). So good as to be laughable and unrealistic — exaggeration and excess are the marks of invention. The screenwriters never bring up their criminal records but merely show that they “have suffered greatly and harbor intense grudges.” The prison administrators all represent the power of darkness; in Prison Break this is similarly apparent. The guards in the prison launder money — they even launder clean money! Unlimited power flows through their hands. It is the intent of the scriptwriters to write them so evil that the “prison break” is given sufficient rationalization, and to reflect on humanity and society….

In the eyes of American screenwriters, knowledge is power, and rationality is superior to emotion. High IQs are respected. No declaration of morality can move an audience as much as a display of intelligence and action. In any situation, particularly in his handling of sudden danger, Michael is like that four-eyes in Hong Kong who coolly and rationally endured Bus Uncle’s insults for six minutes without raising his voice. Solve problems with your brain and not your emotions. Americans like that kind of hero. American heroes are intelligent heroes. Stallone, Superman, Spiderman, and Schwarzenegger (it was his brains and not his brawn that won him the governorship) each have a mind more developed than their four limbs.


Someone wondered why, after the successful escape in Shawshank Redemption, Dufresne did not sue and clear his name. Why do Michael and Lincoln continue to run after their successful Prison Break? Is American prison administration that corrupt? Who knows! There’s nowhere on earth that is perpetually cloudy, but likewise there’s nowhere that flowers bloom forever in the spring warmth. In America, according to probabilities, there are certainly miscarriages of justice and violent enforcement. But America has the TV show Prison Break!

The theme of both works is a parable, an entertaining parable. A parable of resisting a dark system and power structure, of demonstrating the resourcefulness and intelligence of people under extraordinary circumstances. It’s enough that they aren’t written as rebelling, but do you really believe they hold any hope in a corrupt law? Unlike the people fleeing the violence of the Qin Dynasty in ancient China, today’s novels and scripts are written like this: the Pacific is so vast, such a deep blue, oh, the beautiful Caribbean….forget the fuckin’ law, the system — I can’t beat you, so why can’t I just hide? This is Stephen King’s conclusion to The Shawshank Redemption, the same theme as sung by Peach Blossom Spring. Yesterday and today, in China and abroad, everyone has this feeling and feels this truth. The great Tao Yuanming won’t sue them for infringement. Prison Break has not yet finished; what conclusion it will choose is up to the great American script writers.

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