Accounting Through the Ages

Accounting Through the Ages: The Accountant of Shawshank Prison

In this week’s “Accounting Through the Ages,” FloQast Product Manager and former accountant Aynsley Moffitt takes a look at a fictional character we all probably have some familiarity with.

We start our Accounting Through the Ages in 1948, in a courthouse in Portland, Maine.

It was the crime no one would soon forget, a double murder, and an excellent opportunity for a young DA to make a name for himself as he climbed the political ladder. The defendant, a successful banker and amateur geologist, is painted as a well-to-do, angry, and vengeful drunkard with all the motives and situational evidence to be the killer.

Predictably, the defendant was convicted of murdering of his wife and her lover, a golf pro, and sent to Shawshank Prison to serve a double life sentence.

His name was Andy Dufresne.

Yes, that Andy Dufresne. Most would think this would be the end of a career, or story, (for an accountant, it usually is once you have been convicted of a financial misdeed), but Andy was not convicted of a tax or financial crime, so his story continues.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), Andy found himself in a situation where his finance background could garner a modicum of preferential treatment (Well, about as much preferential treatment as one could get in a fictional story set in post-World War Two New England). During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States — and many other high-growth, capitalist countries — had sky-high tax rates and encountered lots of government interference. The federal income tax rate remained high, never dipping below 70% during these decades.

Despite being in, ya know, Prison, Dufresne’s residence in Cell Block 5, Cell 14 ensured he would never lose his accounting prowess. However, it wasn’t until 1953 when he was able to show his value, when he asked a notoriously vicious prison guard a question that nearly killed him: “Do you trust your wife?” Upon calming the irate guard, Dufresne was able to put his expertise in finance on display, helping the man set-up a tax haven for a $35,000 (worth approximately $330K in 2019) inheritance the guard had received. Andy was able to legally get around the nearly 70% tax rate (YES, 70% tax rate), by setting the inheritance as a “one-time gift to his wife,” preventing the IRS from taxing a single cent!

Word of Andy’s accounting expertise soon got out. Over the next two years, he was the in-house tax accountant and estate planner to the guards, and somewhat of a legend to his fellow prisoners. This was the first time at Shawshank that a prisoner had ever been recognized as a commodity instead of an animal. With Andy’s abilities, he quickly accumulated favor from the guards, which afforded special privileges, like a solo cell and a cushy job as the Shawshank librarian, where he was able to stay up on the tax code and accounting regulation changes, as well as earn CPE credits. It also afforded him plenty of time to plan his escape.

The bonds that bind us

While serving his time, Andy grew close with another criminal on his cell block, Ellis Boyd Redding. “Red,” as he was called, had accepted his fate, with no hope of ever again experiencing life on the outside as a free man. In prison, Red held a great deal of clout thanks largely to his ability to barter for prized items like cigarettes, posters, and other non-lethal items for fellow inmates. Eventually, he was able to scrounge a few items for Andy, mainly posters, a few bottles of whiskey, and two rock hammers to help Andy keep up with his geology hobby.

Over the years, it was Red whom Andy shared his highly-detailed and totally realistic dream of one day opening a hotel in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and expressed an interest in employing Red thanks to his ability to procure just about anything. Perhaps it was the idea of living as a free man on the coast in a small beach town, or perhaps it was the amount of detail in Andy’s plan to escape Shawshank, acquire a small fortune, and make it across the country without being caught, but this plan gave Red a glimmer of hope, something he had long since abandoned.

A criminal earns his stripes

A few years later, a new warden was instated at Shawshank.

Samuel Norton believed in two things: Discipline and The Bible. He was a cartoonishly greedy individual who instituted social programs and community service projects for the prisoners — all of which generated money for the prison. One of these programs was the “Inside-Out” program, where inmates left prison to work on public service projects. The warden did not have to pay a livable wage for his “employees” and independent contractors could not compete with his project bids, allowing Norton to take any and all the contracts he wanted. This led to companies bribing the warden so they could land the contracts. Over time, Norton forced the financial sorcerer of Shawshank to skim cents from every dime that came through the prison and keep it clean by moving the money through dozens of shell companies.

This relationship continued until around 1965 when career convict Tommy Williams arrived at Shawshank. To most people at Shawshank, Tommy was just another low-level criminal who had become institutionalized after several stints in prison. However, Tommy had information that could finally prove Andy’s innocence: He had shared a cell with the man who had casually confessed to murdering Andy’s wife and her lover. Upon hearing this information, Andy rushed to the warden’s quarters to discuss getting a fair trial and finally leave Shawshank.

The trial would never come. Having proven too valuable, Norton forced Andy into solitary confinement for 30 days. During that time, the warden bribed Tommy Williams with a move to a low-level security prison as long as he would never speak of Andy Dufresne’s situation again [Editors Note: If you’re trying to imagine sitting on your couch and watching the film for the 75th time on TNT, In the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Tommy was murdered]. For the first time in 17 years, Andy finally felt like the rest of the prisoners, a man without a chance, destined to serve out his two life sentences with each day bringing his shoulders closer to the dirt.

A dish best served cold

Andy Dufresne was not a man to stay down.

As his friend Red said, “Some birds are not meant to be caged; that’s all.” Dufresne was never one to show how he felt and instead started working on solutions, again, relying on what he knew to survive. This time, instead of accounting, he relied on his interest in geology.

Within a few short months of Andy’s arrival at Shawshank, he had noticed the type of cement that served as one of the walls to his cell was soft and different from the rest of the cell. With the rock hammers he had requisitioned from Red, Andy used the same research and attention to detail he had used to administer others’ finances to help find the structural weaknesses in his cell and plot his escape. Next, after some minor success with cracking through the rock, he made another request of his friend: A poster. Because of how inconspicuous a poster of a buxom model would appear in a prison cell, this poster covered the work he did once the lights went out at Shawshank Prison.

Each night, without anyone ever noticing, Andy meticulously chiseled out a tunnel based on blueprints he was able to access in the library. After 20-plus years of digging, the time was right for Andy to make his escape. After stealing a suit, shoes, and an incriminating ledger from Norton, Dufresne made his way through the tunnel, tapped into a sewage line just big enough to fit him, and crawled over 100 yards through raw human waste to his freedom. After a shower or four (presumably), Andy was able to retrieve the nest egg and head south. Before he departed the United States, Andy sent a blank postcard to his dear friend, Red, from McNary, Texas, a city along the border of Mexico, tipping his pal off to what he had planned next. [Editor’s Note: In the movie, he also withdrew a small fortune he had skimmed from the warden and alerted the local newspaper to his money laundering. Instead of serving what would have hopefully been a long prison sentence, the warden instead chose to test-fire his pistol on himself.]

Just like that, Andy Dufresne was free.

Redemption Song

A few short years later, Red, after nearly a 40-year residency in Cellblock 5, was paroled. He was provided a job and a place to live.

But something wasn’t right.

He missed prison. He missed the only structure he had known, and he missed his friend, Andy Dufresne. After months of contemplation, Red decided he needed a change. After following clues left by his friend, Red found the black field Andy had described so vividly, so often. He paced alongside the long rock wall until he came across one that has no earthly business in a Maine hayfield. Attached to the rock was a letter from Andy, a final invitation to “…come a little further…” and join him in Mexico.

Red hopped on the next bus to McNary, Texas, violating his parole in the process, and crossed the border. From there, he joined Andy in that picturesque town on the ocean that is said to have no memory — no memory of Shawshank Prison, the long, hard nights where the walls reminded you of past misdeeds. In Zihuatanejo, Andy and Red found no memory of yesterday — only the opportunity of tomorrow.