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In a large state prison, incorrigible inmates are incarcerated in cell block eleven, known as "the punishment block." After "lights out" one night, Schulyer, one of the convicts, tricks Monroe, a rookie guard, into opening his cell door, then drags him into his cell and savagely beats him. Schuyler then frees Dunn, a fellow convict, who overpowers veteran guard Snader. When Acton, another guard, tries to flee, the inmates wrestle him to the floor and throw open the rest of the cell doors, releasing the convicts. As the inmates riot, hurling the contents of their cells into the corridor, Dunn demands to talk to Warden Reynolds. While sirens signal the uprising and search lights sweep across the yard, Capt. Barrett, the head of the prison guards, relays Dunn's message to the warden. After calling for order in the cell block, Dunn assumes command along with Crazy Mike Carnie, an inmate who has been transferred from a state mental institution. In the prison yard, Dunn, using Snader as a shield, meets with the warden and demands to be allowed to air his grievances to reporters, then warns that the guards will be killed if his request is denied. While the inmates fabricate primitive lethal weapons, the warden, who has long argued for reforms to eliminate overcrowding and appalling living conditions in the prison, phones the governor, who sends a politician named Haskell to negotiate with the prisoners. In block eleven, Dunn appeals to The Colonel, a former war hero who was imprisoned for manslaughter, to help create a reasoned list of demands. Haskell arrives and blames Dunn for the unrest just as the reporters are assembling in the warden's office. When the warden escorts the reporters to meet Dunn, Dunn brandishes the leg irons and chains that have been used to restrain the prisoners and issues a diatribe about the inhumane conditions in the prison. After Dunn demands that the conditions be rectified, Haskell calls the demands unreasonable and assumes an intractable stance against the prisoners, threatening to have them all killed unless they surrender. In response, Carnie hurls a knife into Haskell's chest, wounding him. In the morning, the wounded Haskell joins the warden in the watch tower and observes the guards usher the inmates of cell block four into the mess hall. Emboldened by the riot in block eleven, the inmates of block four rise up and bolt into the prison yard. When cell block five also erupts in violence, the warden sends for the state police who arrive just as the inmates begin to ransack and set fire to the prison buildings. Forming a line, the police move into the yard, firing their rifles and driving the prisoners back into their cell blocks. Although a prison-wide riot has been crushed, eleven prisoners holding nine guards hostage in cell block eleven refuse to surrender. When Dunn learns that one of the prisoners was killed in the melee, he threatens to execute Snader in return. Alarmed, the warden agrees to let Dunn present his list of demands. Dunn then calls on the warden to bring an end to the brutal restraint of prisoners and institute reforms such as job training and the updating of prison facilities. When Dunn also demands that no reprisals be taken against the prisoners who took part in the riots, the outraged Haskell accuses the warden of writing the demands himself and vows to bring the ringleaders to trial. The warden overrules Haskell, however, and asks Dunn to give him six hours to convince the governor to agree to the demands. Back inside block eleven, Dunn is attacked by Mickey, a psychopathic, power-mad convict. Carnie comes to Dunn's aid, then phones Barrett to announce that he is taking over the leadership from Dunn. To put pressure on the warden, Carnie orders the guards to write goodbye letters to their wives, then reads them over the phone to the sobbing women. While Haskell makes plans to blow up block eleven, the warden pleads with the governor to accede to the prisoners' demands. When the sadistic Carnie decides to kill Snader, The Colonel rallies the prisoners to oppose him and Dunn is called in to mediate. After Dunn breaks up a fight among the inmates, word comes that plans are afoot to blow up block eleven. When they hear the sound of pick axes striking the side of the building, the inmates realize that they have been double-crossed and lash the guards to the wall. After The Colonel insists that they all surrender, Dunn slugs him and ties him to the wall alongside the guards. The phone rings at the other end of the block just as the prisoners back away, waiting for the explosion. The inmates run to answer it and learn that the governor has agreed to their demands. Dunn refuses to surrender until the story appears in the morning paper, and after the papers are delivered to the prison the next day, the inmates release the guards and give themselves up. Two weeks later, conditions at the prison have still not improved. The warden summons Dunn to his office and informs him that he is being charged with leading a riot and kidnapping the guards, charges that could add thirty years to his sentence. The warden then explains to the dumbfounded Dunn that the legislature, at Haskell's urging, cancelled the governor's agreement with the prisoners. The warden concludes by noting that some good has come from the evil, because The Colonel has been granted a parole, Carnie is being sent to a mental institution, and a panel is to be convened to investigate conditions at the prison. Dunn is then escorted back to his cell to face an additional thirty years of confinement.