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Determined to fight back against his vicious jailers, whose use of a disciplinary "sweatbox" results in the death of a prisoner named Carter, chain-gang convict Frank "Duke" Ellis encourages his fellow prisoners to "keep the joint hot" and prevent completion on "Liberty Road," a highway project contracted by the unscrupulous William Billings. At the same time, Duke and two other convicts plan an escape, which involves a phony leg chain and a ruse whereby Matthew the Hermit, a fortune-telling bigamist, distracts guard Pop-Eye Jackson by informing him that he has "seen" Pop-Eye's wife committing adultery. As Duke sneaks away, however, he discovers that his younger brother Johnny has just arrived in the camp and returns to his bunk. By promising Billings and Blacksnake Skinner, the head guard, to cooperate on the highway project, Duke keeps Johnny out of the sweatbox and has him transferred to an office job with F. E. Whiteside, a guard who has been assigned to investigate the camp. Although Johnny, who was convicted of assaulting the man who had informed on Duke, worries about his reputation among his fellow inmates, he works hard and earns a parole recommendation from Whiteside. However, when he learns that Duke is to be extradited to a Michigan prison, where as a four-time offender he will spend the rest of his life, Johnny steals a rifle and encourages Duke to flee with it. Duke, recalling the promise he made to his mother to protect Johnny, refuses the gun, but another convict grabs it and leads an escape that results in a devastating fire. In the ensuing chaos, Duke takes off with the other prisoners, but when he finds that Johnny, who had rescued several guards from the fire before escaping himself, has been shot by a search team, he carries his brother back to the camp. After Johnny is delivered to the hospital, the governor tells Billings that he is under arrest for Carter's murder, and Duke is asked to testify against him.