Released in 1980, Brubaker is loosely based on the 1969 nonfiction book Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Joe Hyams and Thomas O. Murton. Murton was hired as a prison warden in the late 1960s to modernize two prison farms: the Tucker State Prison Farm and the Cummins State Prison Farm. The controversial book and movie brought national attention to issues such as prisoner abuse, inhumane conditions in prisons, and the need for modernization.

The movie follows Henry Brubaker, a new warden who has been hired to modernize and reform Wakefield Prison. Brubaker pretends to be a prisoner and mixes with the general population until he discovers widespread corruption and reveals himself in disgust. Though faced with resistance from every direction, Brubaker goes on to uncover a prison saturated with abuse, including local businesses that use prisoners as slave labor and then use shoddy materials in the prison itself, resulting in the collapse of a roof. He also uncovers unsanitary conditions in the kitchen, including food tainted with weevils and vermin, and he discovers that prisoners are being forced to consume inferior food products because the prisoners’ food was sold on the black market. Brubaker’s investigations culminate in the discovery of a mass of unmarked graves which he believes belong to inmates who had been reported as escapees. This discovery creates a political scandal, and Brubaker is asked to take part in a cover-up. Authorities claim that the graves are part of a potter’s field, though this cemetery is more than a mile away. Brubaker refuses to take part in the cover-up and is forced to resign, only months after being hired.

The film was directed by Stuart Rosenberg. It starred Robert Redford as Brubaker, Yaphet Kotto as Dickie Coombes, a trusty (a prisoner serving a life sentence who has earned a certain amount of authority by being trustworthy), and Morgan Freeman as Walter, a death-row inmate whom Brubaker tries to help. The script was written by W. D. Richter and Arthur A. Ross.

Brubaker was released to wide acclaim and brought national attention to alleged abuse in Arkansas prisons. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and won a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing.

Among other differences, in real life, the unmarked graves Murton referred to in his book were later proved to be part of a prison graveyard containing the bodies of prisoners no one had claimed.

For additional information:
Brubaker.” Internet Movie Database. (accessed August 31, 2023).

C. L. Bledsoe
Ghoti magazine


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