Sing Sing Prison Fire: Inmate Letters Claim Chaos, Panic, Respiratory Problems

New details are emerging about the April 18 fire at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y. which forced the relocation of 700 prisoners, the Voice has learned.

Prison officials had told the press that no inmates or staff were injured in the smoky, pre-dawn electrical blaze at the 185-year old complex, but some 60 letters written by inmates to a Brooklyn law firm sharply dispute that account.

"They were trapped in their cells for three hours, in the dark, with a lot of smoke," says attorney Cynthia Conti-Cook, to whom the inmates sent their letters. "The men suffered chest pains, problems breathing, wheezing, asthma attacks, headaches, and at least one who had a seizure."

"The newspapers had everything wrong," inmate Jose Davila tell the Voice in a telephone interview. "For two-and-a-half hours, we were stuck in smoke, in the dark, and they weren't going to let us out."

Davila said that when the inmates were placed in the darkened gym, no guards were there to provide security. "A couple guys got cut, one was stabbed, and one was punched in the face," he says.

Davila adds "a lot of us didn't get to see a nurse. Everyone was blowing black stuff out of their noses. It seemed like they had no evacuation plan, like it was a spur of the moment, last minute thing."

Conti-Cook tells the Voice the letters describe how eight hours after the fire started, a triage station was set up, but nurses kept insisting the inmates were fine, while at the same time, writing injury reports for prison staff.

Moreover, it appears there were some problems with the emergency response, according to the letters. Nearly 300 prisoners were locked into a pitch-black gym for hours without any guards. "It seemed like the officers had no clue what to do," Conti-Cook says. "And there didn't appear to be any kind of emergency evacuation plan."

One inmate claims he was left in his cell for five hours. Another claims he woke up "coughing, eyes burning, constricted chest, couldn't open windows." A third inmate described, "yelling, begging, coughing, with no response from guards," and said he now uses an inhaler.

A fourth inmate claims guards couldn't figure out how to open windows that would have vented the smoke. The cells had to be opened manually because the power went out. A week afterward, he still felt like he was breathing smoke.

A fifth inmate claims he was denied medical attention until 1 p.m. more than nine hours after the fire started. A sixth inmate says there was a fight in the gym, and he tried to bang on the doors to get away from the violence, but the guards wouldn't open the doors.

A seventh inmate claims "a failure to alert through fire alarm, overwhelming dangerous smoke, no lighting, a failure to respond to chronic asthma, officers hostile, combative, abusive, one saying 'I don't care what you do, just run,' and another responding, 'I'm not going in there, let them all die.'"

Peter Cutler, a spokesperson for the state Department of Correctional Services, declined to comment citing the potential for lawsuits surrounding the incident. But he said that all prisons have fire emergency plans that are followed.

"They did follow the plan that evening," he said.

A call to the Ossining Fire Department was not returned.

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