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Fire marshal ruled: Jail was overcrowded, unsafe

After an investigation Aug. 2, a Kansas state Fire Marshal inspector ruled that the Marion County Jail was overcrowded.

The inspector ruled that the jail occupancy be reduced to four inmates. He based the ruling on the 1991 National Fire Protection Association Fire Safety Code. He said each cell needed to provide 120 square feet of space to each inmate.

When the jail was inspected, there were 13 inmates in custody. A week earlier, there had been 18 inmates in the jail. Earlier in 2010, as many as 20 inmates were housed in the jail at the same time.

Marion County officials believed the capacity for the jail was 11 inmates, the number of beds in the facility. When the jail houses more than 11 inmates, the excess inmates sleep on mats raised 3 to 4 inches off the floor.

In conversations with Fire Marshal’s office officials, county attorney Susan Robson was told that the lack of a sprinkler system in the jail was also an issue the Fire Marshal’s office considered in its ruling.

The county commission disputed the ruling. After acquiring the services of an architect, Robson found that the inspector misinterpreted the code. The code requires 120 feet of total floor space per inmate.

The marshal reversed the ruling and said that up to 20 people, including employees can be in the jail at any time. With four employees working, the jail is allowed 16 inmates.

While the Fire Marshal’s office removed its scrutiny, Marion County still faces legal consequences. Inmates filed lawsuits against the Cooke County jail in 2009 and Los Angeles County in 2007. In those cases, being forced to sleep on the floor of those jails was ruled a violation of the inmates’ civil rights.

“Overcrowding conditions, generally speaking, have been found to be unconstitutional,” said Dan Winter, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri said in 2010. “Courts historically have found overcrowding cases to be unconstitutional for cruel and unusual punishment.”

The conditions for employees can be dangerous. Narrow walkways around cells allow inmates to reach through bars to grab guards or dispatchers. Sheriff Robert Craft reported in recent meetings that guards and dispatchers have had toilet water thrown on them by inmates.

Some cells are not usable because the old, deteriorating plumbing has caused leaking pipes and inadequate sewer disposal.

Last modified March 31, 2011

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