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Jail Fire Spurs Safety Overhaul

November 17, 2002

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ In the six months since a jail fire killed eight inmates trapped in their cells, North Carolina inspectors have overhauled safety programs and increased pressure on local officials to improve their lockups.

``It’s the nightmare you didn’t want,″ said Robert G. Lewis, who heads the Jail and Detention section of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

``The whole ball game changed″ with the May 3 fire at the Mitchell County Jail, he said.

The evening blaze began in storage room where a wall-mounted heater apparently ignited a leaning stack of cardboard. With thick smoke pouring through the building, the jailer pulled a towel over her face and tried to crawl to the inmates, but each cell door had to be unlocked manually. Seven of the inmates died still behind bars on the second floor.

Prosecutors investigated the response by authorities and, on Friday, cleared both the jailer and sheriff of any wrongdoing.

The May 3 blaze was the first fatal jail fire since North Carolina began its jail inspection program 35 years ago. Still, Lewis immediately began calling managers of the 22 jails built before 1967 _ the year minimum jail standards were introduced by the state _ and ordered fire and building inspections.

The inspections found hundreds of problems, including faulty or absent smoke detectors and improper storage of wood, paper and other combustible materials _ some of the same problems found in Mitchell County after the fire, the state Labor Department said.

In the 96-year-old Cherokee County jail, inspectors found a stairwell fire door tied open with a wire so jailers could hear prisoners on the second floor. In Madison County, an addition to the jail had been built without a permit and exit signs lacked emergency lighting.

Many of those types of problems have been corrected, but Lewis wants counties to do more.

Ideally, each jail would have a sprinkler system, though Lewis says that would cost tens of thousands of dollars that counties don’t want to spend on aging jails. So he is asking every county without a sprinkler system to install ventilation systems that can suck smoke out.

Wilkes County needed just a few days and $1,700 to install one earlier this year.

When local sheriffs haven’t been able to persuade county officials to pay for safety improvements, Lewis has gone to the meetings himself to lobby for money.

He told Montgomery County commissioners in September to replace their 1927 jail, and ordered them in the meantime to add a smoke evacuation system, alleviate crowding and put another officer on each shift.

``Beyond not having the money, beyond reasons to justify not taking action, you have been told by responsible people what could happen,″ he told the commissioners.

Unlike state-run prisons, jails are almost all the responsibility of local governments, usually counties. Most states have jail standards and inspection programs, but nationwide standards set by the American Correctional Association are voluntary.

Kari Hamel, a lawyer with North Carolina Prisoners Legal Services, worries about jails’ crowding, oversight and safety problems. At the Person County jail, for example, male and female inmates were able to sneak from their cells to a canteen on four different nights in September to have sex.

``When you have those kinds of breakdowns and you don’t know what’s going on in your jail for a week, anything could happen,″ Hamel said.

Person County Sheriff Dennis Oakley blamed the problem on a shortage of jailers.

Understaffed jails with too many inmates make managing emergencies more difficult and conditions generally less safe. About 70 percent of the state’s jails hold more than their capacity on a given day, Lewis said.

He considers it a sign of inadequate planning for the 250,000 people a year who come through county lockups. The detainees range from people who can’t afford bail to those awaiting trial on violent criminal charges.

``People in jails are members of the community whether we like it or not,″ said Stephen Ingley, executive director of the American Jail Association, based in Hagerstown, Md.

Nine of the Mitchell County inmates in jail May 3 were being held for trial. Eight were serving short sentences for such crimes as driving with a revoked license and driving while impaired.

Sheriff Ken Fox and Mitchell County Board of Commissioners Chairman Harry Anderson have blamed a lack of money for conditions at the jail, which had seen few upgrades since opening in 1956. Neither responded to recent requests for interviews.

After the fire, the county was fined $7,350 for violating fire safety codes in the storage area where the fire started and for failing to properly install smoke detectors. County leaders also agreed to pay $8,500 for funeral expenses for each of the dead inmates.

The money would have been better spent upgrading the jail years ago, Lewis said.

``They couldn’t have found $72,000 in 47 years to have done something with that jail?″ he asked.

Mark Thomas, whose son Mark Haley Thomas died in the fire while serving a 15-weekend sentence for driving with a revoked license, wonders the same thing. He started a Web site to discuss the fire and raise money for a memorial to the victims.

Thomas and at least two other families have hired a lawyer and may sue since prosecutors aren’t filing criminal charges.

``All we can do is seek for money and make them change the way they do things,″ he said. ``You got to have some kind of answer about why this thing had to happen under their hands over there.″

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