On the subject of the pre-dawn electrical fire in A-block at Sing Sing Prison in April, the Voice continues to receive letters from inmates aggrieved over the warden’s handling of the crisis. In all, well over two dozen inmates have written the Voice in recent weeks to complain about the incident.
The Voice also obtained a copy of the “unusual incident report” written by Superintendant Philip Heath following the fire. That report offers a sunnier version of the incident. It says that power went out at about 2 a.m. to A block, the infirmary and the secure housing unit, known as the SHU. An hour later, the fire was discovered in the basement. An evacuation was ordered. The Fire Department arrived at 3:30 a.m.
By 7 a.m., officials determined the area was safe, and inmates were returned to their cells at 7:45 a.m.By 12:30 p.m., all inmates had been seen by medical staff, and “no injuries or complaints were noted.” The cost of repair and cleanup was estimated at $375,000.
Well, the inmates accounts couldn’t vary more widely from that rather routine description. Many of the inmates complain of difficulty breathing and other respiratory problems, and that the prison botched the evacuation, leaving them in their cells for hours in heavy smoke.
The Voice has also obtained the minutes of a meeting between an inmate committee and prison officials on April 27, 2011. In that meeting, officials acknowledged that the loss of electrical power meant each cell had to be opened manually, and said they were trying to improve evacuation procedures. But they also claimed, “[prisoners] handled the situation very well, without panic.” Officials also admitted that medical staff did not visit the block until “after lunch,” hours after the evacuation, but said they stayed until 9 p.m.
Inmate Robert Thomas claims that a nurse told him that his red eyes and stinging nostrils were caused by cigarette smoke, rather than the after-effects of being exposed to thick smoke caused by the fire. “Nurse wanted me to change my story around so that it would not correspond with my medical problem related to April 18, 2011,” Thomas writes.
Inmate James Caldwell, meanwhile, says that some bureaucratic mismanagement made the fire response worse. The correction officers waited for their boss, who waited for his boss, who waited for his boss before setting off the fire alarms. “That night of the fire was a perfect demonstration of ‘pass the buck,'” he writes. “Inmates were screaming for help and choking from the smoke. We were trapped and left alone, while the people in charge were standing in fresh air. The feeling of helplessness turned to panic.”
Even though the Ossining Fire Department is a short distance from the prison, Caldwell says, it still took 45 minutes for them to respond to the fire. When they finally arrived, they told inmates to open their windows, but of course, the windows couldn’t be opened. The vents in the roof likewise were problematic–rusted shut, clogged or “just broken,” Caldwell writes.
The fire chief, Caldwell says, ordered the windows to be broken, but the warden refused. Caldwell says about 340 inmates were put in a gym, the doors were locked, and several fights broke out. “There was no plan of evacuation and the people in charge had no clue what to do,” he writes.
Inmate Anibal Sanchez writes that he’s “suffered with trauma and a hard time breathing. All the officers were so unprofessional, and they didn’t know what to do.”
Inmate Willie Alexander, 64 years of age, writes there was no evacuation plan and the windows could not be opened to vent the smoke. He claims he waited for relief for three hours. Inmates were sent back to their cells while the block was still filled with smoke and the electricity was still out. He writes that the smell of gasoline and smoke was so strong that he slept with a homemade mask on his face for eight nights. “I thought I was dead,” he writes.
An inmate who signed his letter S. Curtis and kept contemporaneous notes about the fire response was one of many inmate to file a grievance with prison officials. He echos other comments, and adds that it took four hours for him to be evacuated. It wasn’t until 11 a.m., he writes, that officials set up a makeshift medical treatment area. The medical staff resisted diagnosing anyone with signs of smoke inhalation, he writes. In his grievance, he asked the prison to create an evacuation plan and conduct regular drills.
A prison official named Martinez somehow thought it would be a good idea to reject Curtis’ grievance as “untimely,” and returned it to him.
What’s happened since the fire? On June 24, inmate Derwin Lindsay wrote to report that in the period since the fire, “there still has been no upgrade to the exhaust system, the windows, etc. If a fire were to break out today it would be the same if not worse.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 22, 2011