Shawshank blurs the line between right and wrong and challenges the notion that isolating and reforming criminals will turn them into law-abiding citizens. Instead, the prison is a den of corruption, greed, bribery, and money laundering. Everyone exploits the system for their own gain, from Red, who can smuggle anything into the prison, all the way up to the wardens, who profit from forced prison labor. Andy’s willingness to launder Warden Norton’s slush money initially serves as a survival technique, a means of protecting himself by extending his good will to the administration. His complicity and knowledge of the warden’s illegal enterprises, however, keep Norton from ever releasing him for fear that Andy would reveal the warden’s secret. The fact that Shawshank is as corrupt and tainted as the outside world further justifies Andy’s escape from a hypocritical, exploitative system that cares little for the prisoners’ lives or rehabilitation.
Time serves as both a source of torment as well as the backdrop for the slow, eventual achievement of Andy’s escape, his seemingly impossible goal for nearly twenty-eight years. Shawshank redefines the passage of time for the inmates, especially for the “lifers” like Andy and Red, who can only look forward to death. Hours can seem like a lifetime, and every day seems indistinguishable from the next, adding to the loneliness and burden of imprisonment. Ironically, however, time also proves to be the means of Andy’s escape and salvation and gives him hope throughout his quarter-century in Shawshank. An amateur geologist, Andy realizes that dripping water can erode stone over the span of several million years and that with his small rock hammer and a lot of patience, he too can break through concrete. His devotion to chipping away at the concrete not only allows him to measure the passage of time but also gives him the sense of hope that the other inmates lack.