The song is influenced by gospel music, combining imagery of religious redemption, or release from sin, with implied literal release from prison. David Yaffe describes it as a song about "redeemed prisoners". The singer describes life behind a wall reflecting on every man "who put me here" and a man "who swears he's not to blame" who is "crying out that he was framed". He repeats that "any day now" he will be released. Mike Marqusee says that "the first person narrator speaks from a prison cell. Prison—and more broadly the cruelty of the justice system—is a leitmotif in Dylan's work", but that Dylan broadens the idea of imprisonment to link social issues with a seemingly ancient urge for freedom.Clinton Heylin writes in his book Revolution In The Air:
Prisons of the body and the mind seem to have preyed on Dylan's mind throughout his time spent with the boys on retainer. Among the songs recorded at early basement sessions were covers of "Folsom Prison Blues" and "The Banks of the Royal Canal" (the latter is particularly affecting), both songs written—metaphorically—from inside prison walls. Dylan then takes a leaf from Johnny Cash and Brendan Behan (brother of Dominic Behan), authors of those earlier songs, by writing his own prison song, "I Shall Be Released." He is characteristically careful not to confuse simplicity of construction with a commensurate simplicity of meaning. The release that he is singing about—and that Richard Manuel echoes—is not from mere prison bars but rather from the cage of physical existence, the same cage that corrodes on Visions of Johanna.
Like a number of Dylan's greatest songs—including that other reluctant rabble-rouser, "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door"—its solipsistic self would be turned inside out by simpletons (after the Band, that is) as this highly personal song was made a communal anthem by organizations like Amnesty International, for which it was always a song with one meaning alone.