The Shawshank Redemption follows banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a man sentenced to life in prison in 1947 and spends the next 19 years hatching an escape plan from the Shawshank State Penitentiary. During his time incarcerated, Dufresne befriends fellow inmate and contraband smuggler Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman), the film's narrator who unknowingly provides the banker with the tools needed for the escape. Although he serves as the film’s narrator, The Shawshank Redemption never reveals why Red is imprisoned. The original source material, on the other hand, provides more of a backstory for the character.
The answer to the question "is Shawshank Redemption a true story?" is, unfortunately, a no. The Shawshank Redemption is not based on a true story but was adapted from the 1982 Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The story was originally published in Different Seasons, a collection of four King stories connected to each season of the year. King’s novella was adapted into a screenplay by Frank Darabont in the early 1990s, with Rita Hayworth removed from the title to avoid confusion. The Shawshank Redemption would serve as Darabont’s theatrical debut as a director, though it was not his first time adapting King’s work, and it wouldn’t be his last.
Darabont’s first credit as screenwriter and director is a 1983 short film adapted from King’s story, "The Woman in the Room," first published in the 1978 collection Night Shift. King only charged the young filmmaker a dollar for the rights to make “The Woman in the Room” into a short film, and it opened the door for Darabont to return for Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption in 1987. After receiving a screenwriting credit for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Darabont paid King $5,000 for the rights to make the prison story into a feature film. Darabont has frequently collaborated with King since making The Shawshank Redemption, including another period prison film, The Green Mile.
While the answer to "is Shawshank Redemption a true story?" is no, Shawshank Prison is mentioned in several of Stephen King's works and the jail scenes were filmed in a real prison in Ohio. Though the movie is technically set in Maine, principal photography primarily took place in Mansfield, Ohio, with the Ohio State Reformatory being where the film was shot. The historic prison was built between 1886 and 1910, and remained operational until 1990. A United States Federal Court Ruling ordered that the facility be shut down, and The Shawshank Redemption used the space to begin production in 1993. The Ohio State Reformatory has been a site used in other films as well, such as Tango & Cash and Airforce One, while various artists like Marilyn Manson and Lil Wayne have also utilized the space for music videos. The famous prison is now open to tourists 4 days a week from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., from February - March, and from November - December. While the location has been used for numerous movies and TV shows since The Shawshank Redemption, the Stephen King movie is definitively what made the site famous.
The Shawshank Redemption isn’t based on a true story, so why do some still believe this to be the case? It could have something to do with the similarities in a real-life escaped prisoner incarcerated at the same penitentiary, which served as the primary filming location for Darabont’s movie. Although the story and title prison are set in Maine, Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield was used for the filming of The Shawshank Redemption. Coincidentally, an inmate named Frank Freshwaters escaped incarceration in 1959 after being sentenced to 20 years at the Ohio State Reformatory. While Freshwaters, like Andy, discovered the benefits of befriending prison officials, he did not tunnel his way to freedom. The convict was also captured 56 years after escaping, a fate that would have greatly altered the ending of The Shawshank Redemption.