Vanderbilt Television News Archive
ABC Evening News for Thursday, Jul 07, 1977
Headline: Connecticut / Prison Fire
Fire at federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, noted.
REPORTER: Harry Reasoner
(Danbury, Connecticut) Details of fire given. Prison officials say it was deliberately set; prisoners say it wasn't and that guards prevented them from reaching safety. [PRISONERS - say guards wouldn't let them out.] Danbury police sergeant Robert Lovell says he heard inmates, locked in dorm, breaking windows to get out, and that guards hampered efforts of firemen to rescue men. [LOVELL - says prison gates weren't opened to fire equipment upon arrival.] Acting warden Tony Young refuses comment re: Lovell's claim, but acknowledges vital escape route jammed when guards couldn't open emergency door. [YOUNG - thinks key broke off in door.] Federal investigators already at work.
REPORTER: James Walker (WTNH newsfilm, photos by Kenn Venit)
February 1978, I was transported by Federal Marshals from the Philadelphia Detention Center to the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center, then by Prison Bus to the Danbury Federal Prison to officially begin serving the 65 year sentence which had been imposed upon me.
Almost immediately upon my arrival at Danbury, and after processing, I found myself surrounded and greeted by many of the prison inmates, and several Guards, with an unexpected reverence which puzzled me, thinking that they may have mistaken me for someone else.
I was surprised to learn that they knew so much about me, and that they had been awaiting my arrival, especially since any news about my trial never reached the newspapers.
The Prison Grapevine System, the Internet of its time, apparently was quite effective at disseminating information.
Not more than several days had passed before, one by one, in private audience, the prisoners and one of the Guard Supervisors, who referred to himself as a Masonic Priest, began to approach me, seeking answers to a myriad of questions they posed for me, everything from how to spell a word to very esoteric spiritual matters. The inquirers included the Masonic Priest Guard, as well as several very well-educated Muslim inmates, Koranic scholars.
One day, one of the prisoners came to me and said that he was representing other prisoners seeking my help to get the proper authorities to investigate a horrendous wrong that had occurred in the prison several months before I arrived.
Wanting to understand why he sought my help, I asked him, "Who do you believe I am?"
"I believe that you were sent by God," he replied, then proceeded to tell me a horrific story about a fire of unknown origin in one of the prison units that claimed the lives of five inmates and injured seventy-one others.
Despite the prisoners pleas to let them out, to save them from the fire, prison officials not only refused to unlock the unit door to save them, they stood by dispassionately even as the flames were claiming the lives of the screaming, helpless inmates. Worse, they prevented others from coming to their rescue.
The City of Danbury Fire Department was stopped at the gates to the prison and were not allowed to enter. When the Danbury Fire Chief and his firefighters could no longer withstand the anguished screams and desperate cries for help, he threatened to crash the Fire Trucks through the gates.
It was only then that they were allowed access to the grounds where they rushed to unlock the main cell door to release the trapped prisoners from their burning Hell; but not before five inmates died from smoke inhalation and another seventy-one were injured.
No official investigation into the fire ever really took place. All of the prisoners, eighty or so, who were eyewitnesses to what had occurred, were transferred to various Federal Prisons throughout the system, thereby, effectively preventing any testimony that would reveal the horror that had been allowed to occur with such callous indifference.
Those who confided this information to me, were also witnesses, but managed to conceal their identities as to having knowledge of the holocaust for fear of transfer or reprisals.
I asked the prisoners to find out the names of the Congressmen and Senators who represented Connecticut, as well as those from their own states, with instructions to do this only by word-of-mouth from those whom they would see on visitors day.
Once I had the names, I wrote letters, addressed to the Legislators, detailing what had taken place at Danbury. The prisoners who were the incognito and anonymous witnesses, bravely signed the letters with their own signatures and passed them to the people who visited them on visitors day to be mailed from outside the purview of prison censors.
I never knew what effect the letters had because the official report below was published late in 1978, months after I was released. However, the text of the report indicates that the Connecticut Senators did make an inquiry. I wonder if they were satisfied with this very transparent "whitewash" job which fails to mention that five prisoners died and 71 were injured.
NCJ Number: NCJ 049687
Title: DANBURY (CT) PRISON FIRE - WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT HAS BEEN DONE TO PREVENT RECURRENCE?
Corporate Author: US Government Accountability Office
Sale: US Government Accountability Office
441 G Street, NW, Room LM
Washington, DC 20548
National Institute of Justice/
NCJRS paper reproduction
Box 6000, Dept F
Rockville, MD 20849
Publication Date: 1978
THIS REPORT EXAMINES CONDITIONS AT THE FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION IN DANBURY, CONN., BEFORE AND AFTER THE FIRE OF JULY 7, 1977.
Abstract: TO DETERMINE WHAT HAPPENED DURING AND AFTER THE FIRE, THE GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE (GAO) INTERVIEWED 57 INMATES, 16 PRISON STAFF MEMBERS, MEMBERS AND OFFICIALS OF THE BUREAU OF PRISON'S BOARD OF INQUIRY, AND OFFICIALS FROM THE RESPONDING FIRE DEPARTMENT AND THE DANBURY HOSPITAL; SPOKE WITH EXPERTS WHO INVESTIGATED THE FIRE; AND CONFERRED WITH REPRESENTATIVES OF THE NATIONAL FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION REGARDING FIRE SAFETY IN CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS. WITH RESPECT TO THE FIRE ITSELF, THE FOCUS OF THE GAO REVIEW WAS ON LOCATION OF THE FIRE, CORRECTIONAL PERSONNEL ON DUTY, ACTIONS OF INMATES PRIOR TO THE ARRIVAL OF CORRECTIONAL SUPERVISORS, LOCATION AND REACTION OF STAFF WHEN THE FIRE WAS REPORTED, RESPONSES BY CORRECTIONAL SUPERVISORS, EFFORTS TO RELEASE INMATES, ARRIVAL AND UTILIZATION OF THE DANBURY FIRE DEPARTMENT, MEDICAL CARE, AND INJURIES AND DEATHS. CONDITIONS CONTRIBUTING TO THE SEVERITY OF THE FIRE AND ACTIONS TAKEN TO IMPROVE FIRE SAFETY AT DANBURY AND OTHER FEDERAL INSTITUTIONS WERE ADDRESSED. THE GAO REVIEW WAS HINDERED BY THE LACK OF AVAILABLE PHYSICAL EVIDENCE, THE FACT THAT SEVERAL INMATES HAD BEEN TRANSFERRED OR RELEASED, CONFLICTING TESTIMONY, AND CONFUSION CAUSED BY THE FIRE. IT WAS DETERMINED THAT BUILDING MATERIALS WERE IN COMPLIANCE WITH CODES OF THE NATIONAL FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION BUT THAT THE FACILITY DID NOT FULLY COMPLY WITH FIRE SAFETY TRAINING PREPAREDNESS GUIDELINES. THIS AGGRAVATED THE FIRE SITUATION AND HINDERED FIRE SUPPRESSION AND INMATE EVACUATION. WEAKNESSES IN THE FACILITY'S FIRE SAFETY PROGRAM INCLUDED INADEQUATE AND INFREQUENT FIRE SAFETY INSPECTIONS, AN INADEQUATE FIRE PLAN, THE ABSENCE OF RELIABLE EXITS, AND INADEQUATE LIGHTING. SIGNIFICANT FIRE SAFETY IMPROVEMENTS HAVE BEEN MADE AT DANBURY AND ARE PLANNED AT OTHER FEDERAL INSTITUTIONS. LETTERS FROM CONNECTICUT SENATORS AND FROM A DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE OFFICIAL ABOUT THE FIRE ARE CONTAINED IN APPENDIXES, AS WELL AS A REPORT ON THE DEATH OF ONE INMATE. (DEP)
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Friday, December 05, 2008
Posted by Steve Savage "King of the Beasts" at 12/05/2008 04:22:00 PM