The worst fire in prison history takes place at the Ohio State Penitentiary (Columbus OH). 322 inmates were killed.
The prison was representative of “The Big House” era of prison building. It had been built to hold 1500 inmates but at the time of the fire, 4300 were incarcerated there. There is debate on whether the fire was an accident or a prison escape diversion but regardless, the warden had never put a fire escape policy in place nor had he ever authorized any fire drills. It is said he was more concerned about prisoners escaping than about them dying in a fire.
|Bodies of those killed in the fire.|
While the locked up prisoners begged to be let out of their cells, guards continued to lock up remaining prisoners. Two prisoners finally got the keys from the guards and began unlocking cells one by one. There was no automatic lock/unlock system then. Each cell had to be opened manually.
This was during the Depression when there were minimum sentences laws in place and many were jailed for minor offenses. The fire led to a repeal of minimum sentences laws that contributed to the overcrowding of prisons. By 1931 over 2300 prisoners were paroled from the penitentiary.