Somewhere in That Prison Is a Very Young Nicolas Cage
I rather collect first film appearances. It's entertaining. I admit I missed Nicolas Cage in this; he's one of the prisoners, but I didn't see him. I did, however, see Morgan Freeman in his first credited film role, which is harder to miss. He was already forty-three, if you can believe it, and had been on TV for some nine years on [i]The Electric Company[/i]. It does not, I must say, exactly hurt my personal theory that he aged almost immediately and has been hovering about the same look ever since. I think I talked about this when I watched [i]The Pawnbroker[/i], too, but I quite like Morgan Freeman, so we're going over it again. His is a small but crucial role, that of the man who unknowingly leads to the big reveal. It could have been anyone in the part; this isn't a role that requires the patented Morgan Freeman Gravitas (TM). Still, I think he kind of prefers these roles now and again. They're more fun.
Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford) enters the Wakefield State Penitentiary as a prisoner. There aren't enough beds for the prisoners sent there. The only way to ensure that you'll get one is to pay a bribe to a trustee. There are more bed frames, but they are falling apart and don't have mattresses. There isn't enough food, and what food there is, is disgusting. Prisoners even have to pay to be treated by the doctor (Roy Poole). As Brubaker and the others are being brought in, a prisoner is put on their bus who was shot trying to escape. They never do find out what happened to him, but they never see him again. One day, Walter (Freeman) goes a bit crazy, and Brubaker reveals himself to be the warden, who has gone undercover to find out exactly what's going wrong at the prison. As warden, he wants to resolve the problems being had at the prison, but he quickly learns that people are not, in general, interested in improving conditions for prisoners.
This is based on true events. Including the discovery of bodies behind the prison and the fact that those higher up the chain of command weren't interested in improving conditions for the prisoners. Though the way Brubaker got to know the prison before making himself known is not part of the original story of Thomas O. Murton, the historical figure on whom Brubaker is based, it is speculated that it is instead based on a former warden of Sing Sing who had himself interred at a different New York State penitentiary to get a feel for conditions as a prisoner. Whether that's true or not, it at very least makes for a good story and gets the attention. It's also certainly true that the story of the prison is not a pleasant one. That field wasn't just where those who died of natural causes while prisoners were buried. The real-life prisoners eventually sued over conditions and got the prison closed because their treatment was unconstitutional.
The people in the area of the fictional Wakefield are not interested in having the conditions in the prison improved. Either they are getting something out of it or else they believe that the prisoners are getting exactly what they deserve. Now, Brubaker is very honest at the beginning; he believes that the vast majority of the prisoners under his command are guilty of the crimes they were convicted of, and he has no qualms about making them serve their sentences. He doesn't even have a problem with having the prisoners work, provided that they actually get the fruits of their own labours. Why should they eat canned chili while the beef they raise gets sold to local restaurants at discount prices? But of course, the owners of those local restaurants are quite happy with the deal they have. The local contractor put a shoddy roof on the bunkhouse, and when it collapsed, there was nothing anyone could do. The roof wasn't insured--though some nonexistent farm equipment was.
I'm considerably worried about the idea of all the positions of trust in the prison's being filled by prisoners. Don't get me wrong; I do believe that prisoners can be rehabilitated, and I do believe that there are plenty of positions in a prison that can be filled with prison labour. Heck, come to that, it wouldn't be bad to teach them some decent skills, which would help on the assumption that any of these people are ever getting out. But the head guard, "Dickie" Coombes (Yaphet Kotto), is a prisoner. Another person I recognized, Everett McGill in one of his first roles as Eddie Caldwell, also appears to be both a prisoner and a guard. The people on the towers are expressly stated to be prisoners, and the people guarding the work teams as they go out into the fields are guards. This does not strike me as a sensible way to run a prison, and I can't understand why anyone would allow it. Yes, various authority figures speak disdainfully of the idea of spending more money on prisons, but that's still just weird.