20th Century Fox

The Truth Behind Brubaker

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1980’s Brubaker, starring Robert Redford, was unfortunately based on a very true story that happened in Arkansas.

Arkansas had two prisons – Tucker State and Cummins State – both of which used inmates for labor. When a new governor took over in 1967, he released a suppressed report from the previous administration which detailed the horrific treatment and torture of the inmates.

In 1967, the governor hired Thomas Murton, the basis for Redford's Henry Brubaker, to help reform the prison system, after his successful work establishing the correctional facilities in Alaska. As the first penologist hired in Arkansas, he fought to treat the 1,300 inmates with respect, rid the prison of corporal punishment, stop the death penalty, and provide better food – especially since the prison had its own farm with produce and dairy. He also hoped to instill self-respect in the prisoners (who treated each other poorly and maintained unhygienic cells) and encourage reform measures. It was important for him to have their trust, and so he wore a work shirt and jeans in order to be seen as approachable.

Murton told a reporter, “When you sentence a man to life in prison, with no chance of getting out, he's going to die one day at a time because he knows he's doomed to walk the halls of purgatory for as long as he's alive.”

In 1968, Murton was informed about human remains buried on the property. Three bodies were uncovered, and Murton believed that approximately 200 more prisoners were buried there as well. However, he was never able to find out. According to state investigators, these graves weren't inmates, but rather unnamed paupers.

Despite efforts to quell the controversy, the reputation of the prison and its trustees was damaged as the media continued to report on “Bodiesburg,” their nickname for the area. As a result, less than two months after the bodies were discovered, Murton was fired and banned from the prison.

But the story didn’t end there. In 1969, Murton co-wrote Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal  which detailed his experiences and pointed the finger at corrupt officials, who continued to vehemently deny the accusations.

But in 1970, a federal judge ruled in Holt v. Sarver  that Arkansas’ prison system was unconstitutional for violating the Eighth Amendment and forced the state to comply with federal standards. It seemed Murton was finally justified in his assessment.

In speaking about the role, based on Murton, Robert Redford said, “He is a controversial figure—not your hero type, although he has heroic proportions of a different order. He fails on one hand, due to his black-and-white sensibilities, but he wins a moral victory. Brubaker is a complex character with complex relationships. I wouldn’t have taken the picture if it had been just another prison film.”

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