April 21

This Day in History

Disaster

Apr 21, 1930:

Prisoners left to burn in Ohio fire

A fire at an Ohio prison kills 320 inmates, some of whom burn to death when they are not unlocked from their cells. It is one of the worst prison disasters in American history.

The Ohio State Penitentiary was built in Columbus in 1834. Throughout its history, it had a poor reputation. A cholera epidemic swept through the facility in 1849, killing 121 convicts. In 1893, a prison superintendent wrote that Ten thousand pages of history of the Ohio Penitentiary would [not] give one idea of the inward wretchedness of its 1,900 inmates. The unwritten history is known only by God himself.

The prison, built to hold 1,500 people, was almost always overcrowded and notorious for its poor conditions. At the time of the 1930 fire, there were 4,300 prisoners living in the jail. Construction crews were working on an expansion and scaffolding was set up along one side of the building. On the night of April 21, a fire broke out on the scaffolding.

The cell block adjacent to the scaffolding housed 800 prisoners, most of whom were already locked in for the night. The inmates begged to be let out of their cells as smoke filled the cell block. However, most reports claim that the guards not only refused to unlock the cells, they continued to lock up other prisoners. Meanwhile, the fire spread to the roof, endangering the inmates on the prison's upper level as well.

Finally, two prisoners forcibly took the keys from a guard and began their own rescue efforts. Approximately 50 inmates made it out of their cells before the heavy smoke stopped the impromptu evacuation. The roof then caved in on the upper cells. About 160 prisoners burned to death.

Although some guards did work to save the lives of their charges, the seemingly willful indifference displayed by other guards led to a general riot. Firefighters initially could not get access to the fire because angry prisoners were pelting them with rocks. By the time the fire was controlled, 320 people were dead and another 130 were seriously injured.

The tragedy was roundly condemned in the press as preventable. It also led to the repeal of laws on minimum sentences that had in part caused the overcrowding of the prison. The Ohio Parole Board was established in 1931 and within the next year more than 2,300 prisoners from the Ohio Penitentiary had been released on parole.

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