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During the Great Depression, John Resko kills a storekeeper for trying to prevent him from taking a toy for his infant child. As he awaits execution at Sing Sing, his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, and he is transferred to Dannemora Prison. Surly and belligerent, he is in constant trouble with both the authorities and his fellow inmates, notably Iggy, a comical near-psychotic, and Wino, the black "Halloween Bandit." Resko's state of mind is hardly improved by the news that his wife has left him and that his father died while saving a child's life in an effort to atone for his son's crime. Following two unsuccessful escape attempts and several long stretches in solitary confinement, Resko's ability to paint is discovered by the prison's new and more compassionate principal keeper. At first reluctant to participate in the prison's art class, Resko gradually finds himself becoming more and more absorbed in his drawings; and almost without his realizing it, a gradual rehabilitation takes place. His work is eventually discovered and introduced to the outside world by noted art critic Carl Carmer. Then, in 1949, after 18 years in prison, Resko is paroled. As he leaves Dannemora, his grownup daughter and his first grandchild are waiting for him.