Based on a non-fiction novel by Frank Elli about an Arizona prison riot, director Buzz Kulik brings the shocking events to the big screen – using real-life prison warden Frank A. Eyman and real-life prisoners as extras.
As the movie opens the warden (Eyman) of a state prison is away, and the isolation block erupts with thirty-five of the most violent criminals led by Red Fraker (Gene Hackman) stage a riot and take over their portion of the prison.
Cully Briston (Jim Brown) is a prisoner serving five years and awaiting his eventual parole. Cully is not getting along well with the Sergeant of the guards who, on finding a bottle of moonshine near Cully, sends him to the isolation block. When Cully arrives at the isolation block he discovers that inmates have taken over the block and have taken the guards as hostages.
Red asks Cully to join them in a mass escape, Cully does not want to but agrees to keep the peace. He then clashes with other inmates when they want to kill a guard. Cully reasons that the guards would be more useful as hostages during negotiations with state officials.