The True Story Of The FCI Danbury Prison Fire Of 1977

The concept of using imprisonment to deter undesireable or criminal behavior dates far back in human history and the development of the modern prison system dates back to at least the 16th century, according to Britannica. Though over the years the purposes and goals of incarceration have changed, generally speaking, prisons and jails are still not places that you want to be. While detention centers of all sorts exist all over the globe, one country that has an exorbitant amount of them is the United States.

According to the National Institute of Corrections, there are more than 10 million people incarcerated across the world. More than 2 million of those are in the United States alone, as of 2020. To imprison that many people in the U.S., there are more than 1,800 state prisons, 3,100 local jails, and over 100 federal prisons, per HCSDMass. In 1891, the federal prison system was established by Congress. Though federal prisons have been around for a long time, they are by no means safe places to be. One example of this would be the prison fire that took place at FCI Danbury in the 1970's.

History of Danbury Prison

With the thousands of jails and prisons across the nation, it is likely you haven't heard of FCI Danbury — although you may have heard of one of the hit shows it inspired. This prison is located in Danbury, Connecticut, and was opened in 1940. While FCI Danbury houses male inmates, there are two additional campuses located adjacent to this facility that house female inmates, per Zoukis Consulting Group.

Though FCI Danbury doesn't have the notoriety of places like Alcatraz, Rikers Island, or San Quentin, it does have a few of its own claims to fame. The prison has had its share of recognizable inmates, including American poet Robert Lowell, who was sentenced for refusing to serve in World War II, according to the Stamford Advocate. Ring Lardner Jr., a screenwriter and one of the Hollywood 10 sent to prison by the House Un-American Activities Committee, also served time at FCI Danbury. In addition to its well-known prisoners, FCI Danbury was thrust into the spotlight with the release of the viral Netflix series, "Orange Is The New Black." The series is based on a memoir of the same name and was written by Piper Kerman, who served time at FCI Danbury.

A mysterious fire takes lives

On July 7, 1977, FCI Danbury caught fire, according to the New York Times. Smoke and flames engulfed an overcrowded cellblock that housed 339 more prisoners than it was built for. In addition to the fire, the emergency doors to this dormitory were locked, trapping everyone inside. The chaos and confusion caused by the blaze resulted in the deaths of five inmates and the injury of 71 others, with witnesses reporting hearing the screams of those who were trapped.

Following the fire, there were many questions that needed to be answered. One of those was: What caused the fire in the first place? The fire was believed to have started around 1 a.m. in a washroom of the dorm. The fire marshal stated that it was deliberate and that it was possible someone had set the clothes that were hanging in there on fire.

Though the cause of the fire was believed to be purposeful, a bigger issue arose around the locked emergency doors. There were conflicting stories about how and why the doors were locked, including claims by inmates that guards locked the doors when the fire started. The Office of Justice Programs concluded that there were multiple contributing factors in the deaths and injuries of these inmates. They included flammable materials that fueled the flames quickly, the inability to evacuate quickly, and a lack of any sort of fire suppression system. Changing any one of these factors may have saved lives.