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In Biloxi, a Ten-Minute Fire Kills 29

NCJ Number
Corrections Magazine Volume: 9 Issue: 1 Dated: (February 1983) Pages: 10-15
M R Levinson
Date Published
6 pages
This account of the fire at the Harrison County jail in Biloxi, in November 1982, which killed 29 inmates, cites some of the unsafe conditions in the jail.
An inmate started the fire in a special cell where the walls were covered with a 3-inch layer of polyurethane foam. The inmate, Robert Eugene Pates, apparently started the fire by inserting a lighted cigarette through a funnel made of playing cards and blowing on the cigarette to generate enough heat within the card funnel to ignite the polyurethane. The fire quickly generated thick black smoke which traveled down ducts. The 21 cells in the jail had manual locks. One of the two sets of keys was locked in a cabinet in the medical office. A jailer dropped the other set on the floor when he was knocked down by the explosion that occurred when he opened Pates's cell. Another jailer found these keys and opened cells on the corridor until he, too, passed out. A tow truck used its hydraulic winch to break the lock on the jail's west entrance and the adjacent bullpen, freeing 24 inmates. Analysis following the fire revealed that the polyurethane met all government flammability standards, but would burn under certain circumstances. The Biloxi jail had many safety features, including night jailers, a fire alarm system, an emergency lighting system, and a working smoke detection system. However, its design created one dead-end corridor where smoke backed up. Two other corridors were not visible from the jailers' desk. The temporary loss of one set of keys made the manual locking system hazardous. Other hazards were overcrowding and, perhaps, lax enforcement of the rules. In addition, the plans for dealing with large numbers of injured prisoners were inadequate, and security was initially lax at the local hospitals. Within a month, damage suits totaling $200 million were filed against the county, State, and local governments.