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Another Prisoner Dies in Another Fire at Indiana Prison

by Jo Ellen Nott 

On January 14, 2023, a fire broke out just before 11:00 a.m. in a cell block at Indiana State Prison (ISP), killing prisoner Michael W. Smith, 48. He was the second prisoner to burn to death at the lockup in five years; Joshua Devine, 30, also succumbed to injuries from a blaze in his cell block on April 9, 2017.

The fire that killed Smith broke out in cell house “A,” injuring two other unnamed prisoners. Both were treated at local hospitals and released, according to the state Department of Corrections (DOC). A spokeswoman said further details were withheld pending results of investigations by the State Police, the Michigan City Fire Department and state fire authorities.

ISP is the state’s oldest prison, dating to 1860. It is located in northwestern Indiana near Lake Michigan and houses the state’s death row. The age of the prison’s electrical wiring system is mentioned in an ongoing lawsuit filed over Devine’s death, though ISP Superintendent Ron Neal said that was ruled accidental.

The suit was before Chief Judge Jon E. Deguilio of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana in February 2022, when Defendants moved for summary judgment. The Court granted the motion only in part, allowing the case to continue against DOC employees including guard Justin Rodriguez, who was Officer in Charge of the cell block where Devine died of second- and third-degree burns, after plugging in his television set and sparking a fire.

In his order, the judge noted “dangerous lapses” which Defendants allegedly knew about but did nothing to remedy. Supporting documents included reports mentioning the prison’s aging electrical system, as well as the lack of fire training, sprinklers and fire extinguishers, plus inadequate staffing levels and faulty radios. Two settlement conferences have so far not been successful, and the case is proceeding toward a trial set for June 20, 2023. Devine’s estate is represented by attorneys with the Chicago firms of Loevy & Lovey and Kaplan & Grady. See: Dwyer v. Neal, USDC (N.D. Ind.), Case No. 3:18-cv-00995.

At the time of his death, Devine was serving a 16-year sentence for slicing the throat of an acquaintance during a 2012 robbery attempt. When Smith died, he was serving a sentence handed down in 2013 for voluntary manslaughter and child molestation. 

DOC has denied allegations in the lawsuit over Devine’s death. But it has not said if the conditions it cited have been addressed, including updating old wiring and hiring more guards. Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) tapped new Commissioner Christina Reagle to lead DOC in October 2022. As of February 2023, the department was advertising a $22 hourly pay for new guards. 

Sources:  Local Today, Northwest Indiana Times, South Bend Tribune

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