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Following a series of riots at the state penitentiary, Judge Michael Howland challenges Governor Edward Rice to investigate the prison's incompetent management. When the investigation leads to the removal of the warden, Rice offers the post to Howland, who is well-known for his tough views on crime. Howland accepts, much to the dismay of his teenage son Tommy, who resents having to move away from his friends. Howland's daughter Anne urges her headstrong younger brother to make the best of the situation, and the family moves to their quarters near the prison grounds. Howland establishes himself as a no-nonsense disciplinarian and warns the inmates that they must earn privileges rather than expect them. Inmate Steve Purcell, who is incarcerated on an embezzlement charge, comes to Howland's attention when he inadvertently becomes involved in a fight but refuses to name the ringleaders. Admiring Steve's integrity and good conduct record, Howland offers him a job as the family chauffeur, and Steve and Anne become friends. Tommy has difficultly adjusting to his new surroundings, however, and spends time talking to the inmates. Howland's fears about Tommy's involvement with the prisoners are proven when the youngster helps two convicts in an attempted escape by passing notes to their friends on the outside. The infuriated Howland strikes his son, and soon after, Tommy leaves for college without saying goodbye to his father. Later, during Christmas, Howland and Anne await Tommy's arrival but instead receive a telegram from him in which he states that he has quit school and will never return home. Over the next year and a half, Howland continues to be a strict warden, and Anne and Steve fall in love. Anne learns that Steve confessed to the embezzlement charge in order to protect his guilty brother, who has a family to support, and promises to wait for his parole. One afternoon, some new prisoners are brought into Howland's office to meet him, and Howland is stunned to see Tommy among them. Tommy, who is using the name Frank O'Reilly, has been jailed for armed robbery, and is nonplussed when his father refuses to give him special treatment. Tommy's older accomplice, Martin Deutsch, learns about Tommy's relationship to the warden, and organizes an escape attempt, in which he intends to take Tommy along as "protection." Meanwhile, Tommy learns from Anne that she is engaged to Steve, and also the real reason why Steve is in jail. When Tommy passes the information along to Deutsch, the convict threatens to incriminate Steve's brother if Steve does not aid their escape. On the day of the escape, Tommy, who has realized that Anne and Steve really love each other, knocks Steve unconscious so that he will not get into trouble. Tommy then drives Deutsch and his accomplices, Harry Bowser and Hobey Jenkins, to the gate, but the guard refuses to let them pass. A gun battle ensues after the prisoners take two guards hostage, and Deutsch uses Tommy as shield when he insists that Howland open the gates. Tommy urges his father not to acquiesce and then is shot in the back by Deutsch. Howland and Anne comfort the repentant Tommy as he dies, and Howland then pursues Deutsch into the cell block, where he shoots and kills the criminal. Later, Howland is still grieving for his son when a new group of prisoners is brought to his office. Having learned to temper justice with mercy, he urges teenaged convict Michael Callahan to come to him for advice and help.