Ohio State Prison - Fires in History

fires in history Ohio State Prison

On April 21, 1930, one of the worst prison disasters in American history occurred. The disaster didn't have one defining factor that brought the disaster to the level it became, but a cluster of issues that caused a catastrophe. The fire that ignited was the death blow to an already broken facility.

The Scene

The Ohio State Prison was built in 1834 with a capacity of 1,500 inmates. Between the years of 1834 and 1984, when it closed, the prison saw horrific conditions. The overcrowding reached 5,235 prisoners at its peak. At one point in the 1950s, cancer cells were being injected into prisoners for medical experiments. A cholera epidemic wiped out 121 convicts in 1849. The prison was even used for execution. Between 1897 and 1963, 315 prisoners were executed there. In summary, the prison had a long history of injustices and mistreatment.

On April 21, 1930, construction work was being completed at the prison. Scaffolding was up. The prison was being expanded because it was, at that time, at a capacity of 4,300 prisoners - well over double the legal capacity. The scaffolding was in a cell block that held 800 prisoners. How the fire started is up for debate. One thing that all parties can agree on, is a candle was left on scaffolding with oily rags and a fire ignited. One party believes 3 specific prisoners lit the candle with the intention of starting the fire. The other party believes that the candle was left, forgotten, and prison staff tried to cover the negligence up with the story of the prisoners lighting it. Whichever way the fire ignited is moot because it did ignite and hundreds of people were killed. 

The Fire

The fire came slow, and then fast. At first, the oily rags burned, unnoticed by the 800 people in the cell block, that was, until the black, toxic smoke began to spread. Prisoners began to bang on their cell gates, and beg the guards to let them out. The smoke was suffocating them. The guards refused to let them out. 

The fire soon spread to the roof. Some guards began to help rescue prisoners, but not all guards, and the worst offenders were in the cell block the fire began. The roof caved in and 160 people were killed instantly. 

Firefighters began to show up, and the prisoners rioted, angry that they were locked up. They pelted them with stones. Within 30 minutes, guards were on towers for a vantage point, 500 soldiers from Fort Hayes came to the scene, machine guns were propped on the walls, and bayonets were fixed to the wall with troopers ordered to shoot to kill.

At this point, a few guards were letting prisoners out of their cells, allowing them to escape with guards. A prisoner heard the screams from the locked up prisoners who were still locked up and stole the keys from a guard, unlocking cells and helping in the rescue of 50 prisoners before it became too dangerous. He had to escape from the toxic smoke and growing fire. 

In the end, the fire resulted in the death of 320 people and injury of approximately 130 people. 

The Aftermath

This fire led to reform in the prison system as well as in building code. The law requiring a minimum sentence was repealed, as it aided in the overcrowding of prisons. The year after the fire, a parole board was established and 2,300 prisoners were released from Ohio State Prison. A building code was added that would allow a large row of cell doors to be unlocked from one location.

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