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In England, middle-class Jean Raymond is sentenced to a year in prison after unknowingly being involved in an insurance fraud, engineered by a gambling casino owner to whom she owed money. Jean is concerned that her conviction may affect the career of her boyfriend, Michael Hale, who has recently qualified as a doctor, but Michael assures Jean that he will stand by her. Before being transported to prison, Jean shares a holding cell with Betty Brown, who has been convicted of possessing stolen goods, which were left at her place by her boyfriend. Jean and Betty become friends and are taken together to Blackdown Prison, a women's penitentiary, where they undergo the process of being integrated into the prison population. Jean meets several of her fellow inmates, including Nellie Baden, matriarch of a family of shoplifters, who explains to Jean the tricks of her trade and how the family was finally caught. The prison's female governor explains to Jean that, if she demonstrates good behavior, she may later be transferred to an "open" prison, one without bars and cells. Jean soon adapts to the prison routine and looks forward to visiting days when she can see Michael. Although Betty's boyfriend has promised to visit her, he does not appear. Michael tells Jean that he has turned down a three-year contract in Northern Rhodesia as the post is open only to unmarried men and he still intends to marry her. Later, Jean intervenes when a prisoner attempts to stab one of the officers. She is wounded in the arm and transferred to the prison's hospital. There she meets several pregnant inmates and some who have recently given birth. Jean learns that the mothers are allowed to keep their babies for only nine months, then are forced to put them up for adoption. Babs, one of the women in the ward, tells Jean that while rearing two children after their father deserted them, she went out on a date with a new boyfriend, leaving her children alone. When she returned at dawn, Babs discovered that her baby had choked to death during the night and she was subsequently arrested for child neglect, but still hopes that she can have custody of her older child upon her release. After the governor tells Jean that she and Betty are suitable candidates for the open prison, "The Grange," Jean says goodbye to her new friends. Just before she leaves, however, she receives a visit from Michael who informs her that, upon advice from a colleague, he has changed his mind and is taking the job in Rhodesia. Although upset, Jean tells Michael that she understands, but asks him not to write to her. At "The Grange," the female governor explains to Jean and Betty that they are part of an experiment, which may change the character of prisons throughout Britain. The prison offers remedial classes, pleasant surroundings, no bars or fences and operates on the honor system. To date, no one has walked away from the prison. Jean and Betty enjoy their new freedom and their fellow inmates, including the elderly Millie Williams, who tells her tale: She is there because she tried to help her former friend Mabel, who had pursued a rich old man, Harry Wicks. After marrying Mabel, Harry promptly takes to his bed for the next ten years and fights constantly with Mabel. Millie suggests to Mabel that they kill Harry and split his money, but before Mabel can administer a fatal dose of weed killer, Harry dies a natural death. Millie, assuming that Mabel has poisoned Harry as agreed, is dismayed when Mabel refuses to share Harry's money and threatens to tell the police. Mabel calls the police and invites Millie to tea. From a hiding place, police officers overhear Millie blackmailing Mabel, arrest her and she is sent to prison. In the present, the weeks pass quickly, even pleasantly, at "The Grange" although Betty receives a letter from a friend telling her that her boyfriend is now with another woman. Betty feels that if she could just talk to her man, she could convince him that they still have a future together. When the time draws near for Jean's release, the governor offers her the chance to go into a nearby town for a day. Jean can also take Betty with her, but is responsible for her. At the end of their day, they visit a fair and when Jean goes on a ride, Betty decides to leave. Jean returns to "The Grange" and is being reprimanded for causing the honor system's first failure, when Betty comes back, having realized her mistake. On the day of her release, Jean says goodbye to Betty and promises to stay in touch, then walks outside to find Michael waiting for her. He tells her that he has quit his job in Rhodesia and asks her to marry him, and she accepts.