‘Coddling criminals?’ asks Murton. ‘I once welded a man into his cell—is that coddling?’
As the camera zooms in on a busload of cons heading for a state pen, a handsome, earnest-faced blond with a razor cut looms out conspicuously from among his fellow prisoners. Many frames of Brubaker later, Robert Red-ford has gotten a closehand look at torture, rape and every conceivable corruption behind bars—and finally tells the incredulous convicts that he’s really their new warden. The scripted subterfuge makes dramatic cinema, perhaps, but sometimes lousy verité. “Any warden trying to be a con like that would have been killed either by the guards or the other inmates,” scoffs Thomas Murton. “If my colleagues saw that, they’d hoot.”
As the real-life model for the Redford character, Murton ought to know. In 1967, as a reform-minded state prison superintendent in Arkansas, he dramatically improved conditions inside Tucker Prison Farm (“Wakefield” in the movie) and was getting ready to clean up Cummins, a larger state prison. Then, in 1968, hearing tales of an unmarked mass grave on the Cummins grounds where the victims of torture and murder had supposedly been buried, he dug up three wooden coffins. Murton announced his grisly discovery, said there might be 200 more bodies and demanded a full investigation. A month later he was fired by then Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. Since that day, Murton, now 52, has not worked in an American prison.
Enter Redford, sold not only by the financial deal but also by the formidable supporting cast (including Yaphet Kotto—see following story) and Murton’s infuriating tale. “The system becomes the villain, as it so often is,” observes Redford. Murton worked on location as a consultant and, despite some reservations about “one-dimensional, humorless characters,” calls the result “90 percent accurate.”
Redford does convey the Murton theory of reform: that there is, and should be, humanity behind bars. At Tucker, Murton ended corporal punishment, instituted an inmate self-governing council, and even authorized a baseball team for death-row prisoners. “All I’m talking about is giving an inmate a feeling that he’s a human being, not an animal to be poked and beaten and starved,” he says. Murton adds that when he brought in women teachers, “Everyone said there would be rape, but the men just started to bathe and shave regularly.”
Born on an 80-acre Oklahoma wheat farm homesteaded by his grandfather, Murton earned a B.A. in animal husbandry from Oklahoma State University. But his parents had divorced, and young Tom eventually followed his father to Alaska. A job as a deputy U.S. marshal was interrupted by the service, and as an Army stockade officer he says he saw “abuses as bad as in Arkansas.” Later Murton taught in public schools, became Alaska’s chief parole officer in 1964, and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley for a master’s and doctorate in criminology (he got his Ph.D. in 1968). Over the years his outspoken and sometimes abrasive style got him fired from four different jobs.
After his troubles in Arkansas, Murton looked for work for two and a half years, went briefly on food stamps, and wrote a book before being hired to teach criminology at the University of Minnesota. The stress contributed to the breakup of his marriage to Margaret Conway, a schoolteacher. Their three daughters live in Alaska, and their son is a Gl stationed in Germany. Murton rarely sees them.
Since finishing Brubaker, the ever independent Murton has resigned his “boring” teaching job to return to his family farm in Oklahoma. He still dreams of prison work: “Every time I hear about a riot I think I could go there and do something about it.” In the meantime he is experimenting with a new poultry reform: raising both chickens and turkeys in the same coop. “Everyone down here said you can’t do that,” says Murton in an inadvertent summary of his life. “I said nobody tried.”