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Virginia Prison "Fire Trap" Finding Reversed

Virginia Prison "Fire Trap" Finding Reversed

Virginia's state fire marshal overruled an inspector's recommendation to close a prison "fire trap" after reinspecting the building himself at the request of the warden, according to an Associated Press report.

Carolyn R. Williams, a state fire inspector under Fire Marshal Ed Altizer, wrote in November 1997 that Powhatan Correctional Center's "M Building" imperils both prisoners and staff.

"It is strongly recommended... this building be abandoned and occupants relocated into new prison facilities," Williams wrote, underlining the words "strongly recommended" for emphasis. Her report said the building "jeopardizes the safety of both inmates and staff" because the locking system doesn't meet the fire code.

Guards can open the cells on each of the building's three tiers by pulling a lever. But about 30 cells-- a so-called prison within a prison -- have double steel doors that have to be unlocked individually in the event of fire.

In addition, the building has only one exit and one stairwell, both on the same end of the cell block, wrote Williams. That would force some prisoners and guards to fight through choking, blinding smoke the length of the building to reach safety.

"M Building is an antiquated fire trap," said a state fire safety official who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity. "We eventually are going to kill people there."

Williams' report and recommendations languished, unnoticed, until September 20, 1998, when the AP reported her findings.

On October 9, Powhatan Warden Alton Baskerville wrote Jack A. Proctor, deputy director of the fire marshal's parent agency, the Department of Housing and Community Development, seeking another inspection. Three weeks later, Proctor, Altizer, and another safety inspector visited M Building.

"This is a sensitive issue," Altizer told the AP, "and because of what was written [in the original inspection report] I thought I should go out there personally and take a look at the situation."

The fire marshal's office issued a report that same day that listed none of the serious violations in the earlier inspection. At the same time, according to the AP, veteran state fire inspector Williams was ordered to stay away from the prison.

Altizer said as far as he's concerned M Building complies with the state fire code, even though the same violations Williams cited remain uncorrected.

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