ACLU Urges Appeals Court to Enforce Fire Safety Regulations in Michigan Prisons

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
February 5, 2004 12:00 am

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CINCINNATI-Citing the grave risks to the health and lives of prisoners and their guards, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged a federal appeals court to uphold a ruling directing the Michigan Department of Corrections to ensure that its prisons conform to national fire safety standards.

“These cellblocks are nearly one hundred years old and they are not safe for prisoners or the officers who guard them,” said Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Even though the state’s own study confirmed the dangers, Michigan officials refuse to fix the life-threatening problems.”

In arguments today before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Alexander urged the court to uphold the Michigan District Court’s February 2003 ruling, which came in response to an ongoing ACLU lawsuit over prison conditions in the state.

As the district court noted, “The very substantial failures of these facilities to allow for timely egress in the event of a fire, to exhaust smoke, to sprinkle fire, and to unlock doors means, simply, that many inmates in each facility would likely suffer smoke inhalation or death in the event of fire. Simply put, these risks are grave and unacceptable.”

The ACLU’s brief explains the complicated and dangerous prison evacuation plan that requires correctional officers to manually unlock doors before prisoners can escape a burning facility. Each cellblock is approximately the size of a football field, and many prisoners are housed far from prison exits. Stairwells are often too small to accommodate large numbers of prisoners who would be fleeing during a fire.

In addition, incomplete sprinkler systems and the lack of a smoke exhaust system mean that smoke from a cell fire would rise from that cell and expand, affecting more cells. When the smoke reached the top of the block, it would move horizontally through the block and then downward. The space above the occupied cells in a cellblock would be of limited use before smoke began affecting prisoners attempting to use the upper galleries to exit. Smoke would also form eddies in areas that prisoners on other levels were trying to use as exits.

Witness testimony at a previous court hearing described a fire started in one of the cellblocks several years ago by a prisoner who put a few papers and a sheet in a trash can, ignited the material, and placed his mattress over the fire. There was so much smoke produced by the fire that someone in the cell on the other side of the open area could not see cells on the side of the block where the fire had been started. Smoke had come up in front of the tiers and into the cells on the opposite side from where the fire had started.

“Today’s hearing is an important reminder to prison systems across the country that the health and safety of the men and women we choose to confine are protected by the Constitution,” said Alexander. “Michigan’s continued indifference to proper fire safety in its prisons is a tragedy waiting to happen.”

Today’s oral argument before the Court of Appeals in Cincinnati will be presented by Alexander. Co-counsel in the lawsuit, Hadix v. Johnson, include Michigan civil rights attorneys Patricia Streeter and Michael Barnhart.

The brief is online at /node/35134

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