The day 320 inmates lost their lives during a fire in the US, some were not released from their cells

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Most of the jail’s security guards chose not to release inmates from their cells despite the fire.

Photo: Tropical Press Agency/Getty Images

The Ohio State Penitentiary was built in Columbus in 1834 and throughout its history, got a bad reputation. A cholera epidemic swept through the facility in 1849, killing 121 convicts.

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 inmates living in the jail. Construction crews were working on an expansion and scaffolding was installed 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 scaffold housed 800 prisoners, most of whom had already spent the night locked up. Inmates begged to be let out of their cells as smoke filled the cell block. However, most reports state that the guards not only refused to open the cells, but continued to lock other prisoners. Meanwhile, the fire spread to the ceiling, endangering inmates on the upper level of the prison as well.

Eventually, two prisoners forcibly took the keys from a guard and began their own rescue efforts. About 50 inmates managed to get out of their cells before heavy smoke halted the impromptu evacuation. Then the ceiling collapsed in the upper cells. About 160 prisoners were burned to death.

Although some guards worked to save the lives of their protégés, the apparently deliberate indifference shown by other guards led to a general riot. Initially, firefighters were unable to access the fire because angry prisoners were throwing stones at them. By the time the fire was brought under control, 320 people had died 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 prison overcrowding.

The Ohio Board of Parole was established in 1931, and during the following year, more than 2,300 Ohio Penitentiary inmates were paroled.

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