Reviewed by Peter A. Remender, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

The film Brubaker is based upon the book Accomplices to the Crime, by Tom Murton and Joy Hyams (1969). The book is out of print, but I would wholeheartedly advocate checking one's library as Accomplices provides valuable background to the film. Tom Murton served as superintendent in the Arkansas Prison System from February 1967 to March 1968, and he was the technical advisor for the film. Another valuable source is the three audiotapes titled, "Tom Murton--Reform Warden," which are available from Greenhaven Press (577 Shoreview Park Road, St. Paul, MN 55112). The audiotapes series entail Tom Murton speaking about his experiences with the Arkansas Prison System. Either one of these two sources provides the sociology instruction with an excellent basis for evaluating the empirical validity of the film as a document about prison life.

Brubaker can be viewed as a case study of one prison system at one point in time, from the vantage point of a participant observer concerned with strategic intervention and with what he terms genuine or real reform.

The film begins with "runner" being put on a prison bus after he had been badly beaten by inmate guards armed with guns. The Arkansas Prison system did make use of inmate guards armed with guns. Students might be asked to consider what difference the use of free world guards as depicted in the film. The fictional character in the film--Henry Brubaker--experiences the prison as an inmate before he informs everyone that he is the new warden. This reminds me of the approach taken by Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who spent six days in maximum security prison to gain an insider's perspective on prison life (see The Shame of the Prisons, New York: Pocket Books, 1972, a Washington Post national report). Students can be asked to think about how the meaning of the prison experience depends upon one's vantage point. Can an outsider understand the prison experience as an insider would? How critical is the method of participant observation to our discipline? We could explore fundamental concerns of sociologists interested in the sociology of knowledge--is all knowledge perspectival or can we objectively know the truth about our social constructions of reality?

The film is accurate in showing the physical abuse of prisoners by other inmates, the selling of goods and services by inmates, and the use of prisoners for private monetary gain. Inmates were undernourished, while non-inmates ate well (one of Brubaker's reforms was to see that beef raised on the farm would be eaten on the farm). Prison labor was used to build a hotel and (in the film) swimming pools.

Brubaker establishes an inmate council analogous to the one established by Murton in Arkansas. Murton believes that people have to be given responsibility if they are to handle responsibility in the free world outside of prison. One might ask students to think about the hierarchy of authority within bureaucratic organizations and to reflect upon whether the chain of command is the most rational, most efficient way to make decisions. I am reminded of the Mondragon experiment in Spain as a model in which the authority rests with the rank and file rather than with managers. It is noteworthy that some American executives are upset by the labor-management co-determination laws which structure decision making in some other countries.

A supporter of Brubaker warns him that he may self-destruct and argues that he must work within the system: "If you are not in the system, you can't change it." This is a critical issue worthy of much thought. Does change come from inside? Is it necessary to network with the power brokers? To what extent can/must one compromise? Brubaker refuses to "sell out" his principles (stop the grave digging in return for funds for the prisoners still alive). Instead, he calls the newspapers and television situations and brings outside attention and pressure. He argues that if one condones murder, one cannot tell the people in prison why they are locked up; he doesn't believe in playing politics with the truth. Brubaker and Morton both say they can compromise on strategy but not on principle. An instructor might ask students if they can see the distinction Brubaker is making. Do they think they need to "go along" if they wish to "get along?" To what extent would they have compromised if they were in Brubaker's position?

The film takes place at Wakefield Prison. Arkansas has two prison farms-- Tucker and Cummings. Inmates were beaten, had needles run up their finger nails, were tied to an operating table and had wires connected to their genitals while a hand crank telephone--the Tucker Telephone--was used to generate electricity (as much as 105 0r 106 volts, perhaps). The film does show Brubaker with the "Tucker Telephone" but without the graphic detail.

As for corruption, the president of the senate sold paroles ($1,000); the director of the state police had a motel built for himself with inmate labor; a U.S. Marshall had his hay cut by inmates; the prosecuting attorney had been accustomed to having his groceries supplied by the prison system; the district judge had his show horses kept on the farm, groomed, trained, and shown by inmates; state police used to come by for steak dinners; and legislators and parole board members ate from special meat lockers containing pheasant, ducks, and geese served to them by the inmates. The facts are from Tom Murton and are taken from the Greenhaven Press audiotapes.

Murton describes the Arkansas Prison System as a "system of total exploitation for the benefit of selected individuals" (audiotape). Prisoners were leased out to contractors. Inmates had milk once a year (though they lived on a dairy farm). While inmates were 40 lbs. underweight on the average, they would load a side of beef in the car of a parole board member during the board hearings at the prison. Of course, it was possible to buy better food (or a better job) as the film did show if you had the money.

Murton observes that the trustees system (inmate guards) was brutal--it was the trustees who were pulling toenails out. Murton asks one of the guards why he took the position. His answer is that you can either inflict pain or be the victim of others. Do our students face similar choices? Do we? Do we endorse the logic of the zero-sum game in which one party gains at the expense of another? What alternatives do we set to the exploitation of individuals for private gain? In this sense, the film is not merely about prison life but about human relationships in our world!

Murton says that his notion of reform is based upon shared decision making; that a system of oppression cannot function without the cooperation of the oppressed. Those of us who are critical of "kinds of people" thinking would endorse the possibility of individual change and would likely view human dignity and social responsibility as vital elements in any behavioral change. The film might be used to get students to think about their views of "human nature."

News media came from Germany, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, and Italy to find out what was going on in the Arkansas Prison System. Murton believes the exposure was needed, that the public had to be aroused. The power structure was alienated; the governor fired Tom Murton.

"Is it fair to light a candle knowing that someone else is going to blow it out?" "Is it functional to free slaves temporarily knowing that somebody else is going to come along later and put them back into shackles?" These are questions raised by Tom Murton that might be raised after viewing the film. In the film, the inmates applauded Brubaker as he was driven from the prison, and their support for him suggests he was right in his actions. Some did suffer. Was the gain worth the cost? Indeed, were the long-range results positive?

After being fired in Arkansas, Murton and his wife paid a personal price--unemployment (it was three years before Murton could get a regular job). What risks should we be prepared to take to achieve what ends?

The film Brubaker has relevance for students interested in the criminal justice system, but its significance extends far beyond one prison system at one particular point in time. All of us concerned about social change should benefit from viewing this film. All of us working within the framework of large scale formal organizations will find much to think about in viewing it. We have much to think about as we play the game, as we play politics, as we decide whether we must compromise. Any individual who desires to be part of the solution to the problems we encounter in our world will find much to think about in the film Brubaker.


Murton, Tom and Joy Hyams. 1969. Accomplices to the Crime. New York: Grove Press.