SPIRITUALITY IN THE SLAMMER

By EW Staff
Updated April 07, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The truth shall make you free. Want proof? Just watch The Shawshank Redemption, which continues the tradition of prison films about inmates who awaken spiritually while suffering the indignities of incarceration. Unfortunately, these characters often meet less-than-heavenly ends.

I WANT TO LIVE! (1958, MGM/UA) Setup: Prostitute (Susan Hayward) is sentenced to death for the murder of a crippled widow. Hardships: Blasted with cold shower by sadistic guard; scolded for wearing ”provocative” black slip; distressed when execution-day outfit is spoiled by medical gadgetry. Epiphany: Accepts St. Jude medal from priest. Outcome: Dies in the gas chamber.

BIRD MAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962, Columbia TriStar) Setup: True story of an ornithologically inclined lifer (Burt Lancaster). Hardships: Sent to solitary for killing a guard; denied parole for ”poor” attitude. Epiphany: Care of a grounded fledgling in Leavenworth leads him to become a self-taught avian disease expert. Outcome: Transferred to Alcatraz without his birds.

COOL HAND LUKE (1967, Warner) Setup: Vandal (Paul Newman) gets two years in a Southern prison for destroying municipal property. Hardships: Forced to perform back-breaking road work; beaten by prison bully; sent to ”the box”; whipped and caned by sadistic authorities. Epiphany: While hiding out in a church, he asks God for guidance. Outcome: Becomes a martyr after allowing a guard to shoot him.

THE LONGEST YARD (1974, Paramount) Setup: Former point-shaving pro quarterback (Burt Reynolds), serving time for drunk driving, coaches an inmate football team. Hardships: Shorn of eccentric facial hair; pummeled by sadistic guards; forced to perform back-breaking road work; sent to ”the hot box.” Epiphany: Redeems himself by defying sadistic warden’s demand that he throw game between cons and guards. Outcome: Walks off the field a hero, but presumably must serve out his term.

CHAINED HEAT (1983, Vestron) Setup: Convicted naif (Linda Blair) gets thrown into a women’s prison. Hardships: Kissed and fondled by sadistic inmate; slapped and raped by warden; approached by a cockroach in solitary. Epiphany: After a ”purifying” shower, she heads uprising to expose corruption. Outcome: Befriends sadistic inmate in the name of solidarity.

WEEDS (1987, HBO) Setup: Thug (Nick Nolte) establishes a prison-theater group with fellow cons. Hardships: Does time in a cage, naked; failed suicide attempts by hanging and throwing himself off a balcony. Epiphany: Inspired by Genet, he writes and performs a prison allegory, leading to parole and love. Outcome: Troupe carries on despite a New York Times pan.

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