A married 19-year-old, Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), is sent to prison after a botched armed robbery attempt with her equally young husband, Tom, who is killed. While receiving her initial prison physical, she learns that she is two months pregnant.
Marie has trouble adjusting to the monotonous and cutthroat world of the women's prison. She meets Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), a murderous shoplifter, who says once Marie gets out, Kitty will get her a job "boosting" (shoplifting). Marie does not want to get involved in crime, but Kitty explains the realities of prison life: "You get tough or you get killed. You better wise up before it's too late."
Told she can be paroled in 10 months, Marie witnesses prisoner after prisoner being "flopped back"—granted parole—but then not released from jail because no job had been arranged by her parole officer. One flopped-back prisoner, June (Olive Deering), kills herself given the hopelessness of her situation. For Marie, this steadily drains her own hopes of getting out early.
Despite the hardships under sadistic matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), Marie gives birth to a healthy baby. She plans to "temporarily" grant full custody to her mother, with the intent of getting the child back after she is released, but Marie's callous step-father had decided not to allow the baby into his house. Marie's mother uses the excuses that she is "too old" and "hasn't a penny in [her] name" as reasons why she cannot help Marie. After Marie is denied a parole, she tries half-heartedly to escape. She is not punished for that attempt, although prison authorities do force her to give up her child for adoption.
The arrival of "vice queen" Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick) sets off a rivalry with Kitty. Elvira bribes Harper to put Kitty in solitary confinement, where Kitty is beaten. When a kitten is found in the jail yard, Marie attempts to make it a pet, but Harper tries to take the little animal away, an action that prompts the inmates to riot. The kitten is accidentally killed during the melee; and after order is restored by the staff, Marie is punished this time, also being sent to "solitary".
Before taking Marie to an isolated cell, Harper shaves Marie's head, symbolically stripping her of her innocence. Harper has disagreements with the sympathetic reformist prison superintendent, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), especially after this latest incident with Marie. Because Harper is a political appointee, the police commissioner refuses to fire her and instead asks for Benton's resignation. When Benton declares that she will demand a public hearing, the resignation issue is dropped.
Kitty finally rejoins her fellow inmates after serving a month in solitary confinement, but she is distraught and mentally unstable. After being harassed by Harper in the prison cafeteria, Kitty stabs Harper to death as the inmates watch and make no attempt to stop it. Marie—now hardened by her exposure to career criminals and sadistic guards—actually encourages Kitty in the fatal assault.
Up for parole once again, Marie has allegedly found a "cashier's job" outside the prison. In reality, the job is simply a ruse to get released so she can join Elvira Powell's shoplifting gang. Marie leaves the institution a cynical, unscrupulous woman after living and surviving there for 15 months. Before she departs, Benton asks her why she is going into crime when she could go back to school. Marie says she got all the education she needed in prison. After she leaves, an office assistant asks Benton what to do with Marie's file. Benton replies, "Keep it active. She'll be back."
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