Sheriff! Your Jail Is On Fire!

This article seeks to enlighten readers on prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery steps that should be considered to confront jail fires.


By Kem Kimbrough, Sheriff and Bill Lowe, Battalion Chief, Clayton County, Georgia

August 2009 saw prison riots where inmates set fires at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, Kentucky, and the California Institute for Men in Chino, California. These prison riots resulted in hundreds of injured inmates with scores of inmates transported to local hospitals with serious injuries, injured prison officers, destruction and closure of jail facilities, threat of inmate escapes, relocation of inmates who both participated and ignored the riots, criminal investigations to identify those inmates responsible for the riots, and widespread citizen concern. Sheriffs easily rank jail fires near the top of their worst possible nightmares. This article seeks to enlighten readers on prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery steps that should be considered to confront jail fires.

There's no more sacred legal and moral duty elected sheriffs have than to provide safe and secure detention facilities for staff and inmates. Sheriffs' obligations exist even when inmates engage in deliberate conduct increasing the risk to themselves and others. Consequently, occupant protection requires planning and training for maximizing life safety in the event of a jail fire. Clayton County Sheriff Major Robert Sowell, who commands jail operations, remarks, "One of my biggest fears would be to have a jail fire. The potential for injuries and deaths is always present. While we have adequate staffing for normal jail operations, even a small fire could quickly overwhelm staff as they rescue inmates, fight the fire, and provide escorts for responding firefighters."

These two recent jail riots follow common knowledge that many jail fires are deliberately set by inmates for different reasons: (1) inmates who are just uncontrollable and irate seeking to express their grievances or create chaos for the legal system that keeps them confined against their will. (2) Mentally ill inmates who set fires either intentionally or unintentionally. And finally (3) inmates who start fires as a diversion for assaults on fellow prisoners / staff or escape attempts or both.

Inmates have unlimited time and energy to watch detention officers - watch them. These observant inmates make notes of shift changes and staffing patterns. They know when the jail staff is distracted on visitation days, contractors are delivering food and supplies, and court appearances. One question sheriffs should ask themselves is "Can my inmates view the staff parking lot to guesstimate how many officers are on-duty within my jail?" If inmates can gather this intelligence, they have valuable information for planning incidents.

Just consider how much effort SWAT teams take to gather intelligence when they plan high-risk warrants. Information is power so keeping inmates ignorant of staffing levels and patterns can be vital. Shielding the officers' parking lot from view should be evaluated. Clayton County's present jail is less than ten years old, and the original windows were clear thick Plexiglas offering inmates a view. However, after jail officers' cars were frequently vandalized and broken into as inmates observed and told friends and family which cars belonged to officers, the Plexiglas windows were sandblasted reducing visibility to zero.

Another solution is to confuse inmates by parking reserve patrol cars in the lot. There might only be six officers on duty but inmates looking into the parking lot see 15 patrol cars. It can - and does - offer inmates a moment of pause before they assault staff or set fire to your jail because inmates think more staff is present than actually exists.

Prevention - The Jail Fire that Never Ignited

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