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Silhouette of a man against the blazing flames of a fire
Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

Back when I was young, in the late 1980s, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 went down in a ball of flames near Detroit Metro Airport in Michigan. At that time, I lived in a neighborhood roughly a mile away, so my buddies and I rode our mopeds over to investigate. The carnage was terrifying, so terrifying that my young mind immediately tried to block it out.

But I could never shake the stench of burning jet fuel and human flesh.

Since that day, I’ve carried with me an unnerving fear of fire, one I haven’t been able to shake even in prison. That’s because I've encountered fire — and burnings — more times than I care to admit during my 27 years of incarceration.

All those experiences and emotions came roaring back recently when I read an article, published by journalists from the Houston Chronicle and The Marshall Project, about the fire-induced death of Jacinto De La Garza in his Texas prison cell.

The 26-year-old’s family worried that he had fallen back into depression or drug use after the pandemic had closed down visitation. Fellow prisoners told the reporters that they had begun to notice him pacing in his cell, talking to himself. In the cell next door, a prisoner said he had heard De La Garza “beating on the steel bunk and toilet” for three or four days.

Later in the evening on Nov. 11, 2021, he lit a fire, slowly adding more fuel, including his jacket and stuffing from his mattress. In the aftermath, a fellow prisoner said, “I still sometimes envision him struggling for his life, putting his face in that little window, trying to get air.”

Many kinds of prison fires

De La Garza was the second man in Texas to die inside a burning cell in six months. But the Lone Star state is not the only place where fires are a feature of incarcerated life.

In my time in the Michigan Department of Corrections, I've observed simple fires caused by angry and disturbed men seeking attention or retribution. In many cases, I witnessed these men burn trash cans or piles of cardboard and paper, not aware of the danger they were putting us all in.

I was around when one man set a shower curtain on fire, and when another stacked a large pile of paper and clothing on his mattress and lit that on fire. (In both of these cases, I only witnessed the charred aftermath.) I have known of fires caused by prisoners igniting lint-clogged air vents. In my experience, the latter is quite common; the goal is to try to conceal the fact that one is smoking contraband cigarettes or maijuana or some other smokable drug.

In some instances, fires were accidents caused by faulty wiring or misuse of a microwave. I’ve also seen or known of a number of kitchen fires and a few industrial ones in our prison-run factories. And those are frightening moments. For one, you just never know if the fire suppression and alarm systems are going to work properly. It's been my experience that sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. The prison I am currently housed in — Thumb Correctional Facility — is in the process of updating its fire suppression system after 35 years of a malfunctioning system.

But even the new one has problems. There is no way, for instance, for an incarcerated individual to set off the alarm. In fact, there's not even a way for the housing unit guards to set the alarm off. A sergeant or someone of higher rank is the only person in possession of a key, and they're seldom in the units.

Fires are sometimes ignited as political acts. In the late 1990s, the Michigan Department of Corrections decided to “downsize” the amount of personal property we incarcerated individuals were able to possess.

In protest, disgruntled men lit the garbage cans in many of the housing units on fire, flooding the buildings with smoke and forcing the guards to evacuate everyone. This occurred on and off for a couple of weeks.

Like most protests in prison, it concluded when the administration offered some small concession. I have personally experienced this type of fiery protest eight or nine times, in some form or another.

But these acts of resistance hearken back to a history of more intense fires in Michigan prison history. Some of these explosive moments include the riots that took place at three Michigan prisons — Jackson Prison, Marquette State Prison and Michigan Reformatory — in the latter half of the 20th century. In those facilities, anger over prison conditions and abuse by guards led prisoners to burn the facilities’ wooden structures to the ground.

In solitary, death by burns

Many years after witnessing the destruction of Flight 255, in the early 2000s, I was locked in an isolation cell in the hole of St. Louis Correctional in mid-Michigan. I remember it being at the time a state hotspot for suicides. And no wonder; the place was run like a dungeon — and its overlords were cruel.

My first few weeks there, the guards kept dumping my meals onto the floor of my cell, expecting me to eat them. Sadly, eat them I did — after enough days without food you'll eat anything. I'll never forget that first meal after I succumbed. I scrubbed the floor of my cell the best I could beneath the door's food slot and waited. It was spaghetti. They made me eat it off the floor like a dog.

Meanwhile, a man who suffered from mental illness several cells down from me spent weeks hoarding newspapers, plastics, cardboards and loose-leaf papers. According to a man who lived in the cell across from me, who had a line of sight into the other man’s cell, he had piled the combustibles into his cell's steel footlocker. It was elevated off the ground about four inches, with holes in the bottom to let water drain. There, the man across from me said, the ill man sat cross-legged in that nest of flammability and lit himself ablaze.

This was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the man’s name. There were several hundred guys in that unit — and many came and went everyday. Plus, we were often moved from cell to cell so none of us grew comfortable.

Due to the layout of the unit — long hallways lined with cells on either side — I didn't witness the fire myself. But I heard the man's screams, which I’ll never forget. Imagine the yowl of a severely injured dog, then make it sound even worse. After the shrieking came the smoke, a thick phantom bearing the scent of the man who'd burned.

Later, I confirmed those facts with one of the unit's regular guards. He was happy to discuss the event with me because he thought the entire thing funny. That same guard also informed me the man had died due to his wounds.

It took the guards several minutes to pull the man's badly burned body from his cell. After they did, the cell continued to smolder, pillowing into the segregation unit. Had the unit's fire suppression system worked properly, the sprinkler would have activated, flooding the man's cell with water and extinguishing the fire. But it never went off.

Left to choke on smoke

That system was also designed to purge the building of smoke by sucking it out through the roof vents. This also never occurred. As the unit filled with more and more smoke, the guards fled without saying a word. Because the unit didn't possess windows that opened, there was no way to seek fresh air. And all the cells were connected by an air exchange that circulated the air throughout the entire unit. It was now circulating smoke.

Soon it flooded my lungs. I coughed. My eyes burned. While I could still stand, I stared outside my window and watched those cowardly guards flee.

When the smoke grew too thick to see, I lay down on my cell's filthy, piss-scented floor and waited to die. My heart hammered and my hands shook. I wept.

Lying there, I heard all the other incarcerated men cry out and beg for their lives. With about a foot of breathable air above me, I promised myself and my version of God that if I survived, I would turn my life around, that I would do something with myself.

Then a guard, the only truly heroic man working in that prison on that day, entered the unit dragging two large barrel fans that he used to purge the air. It didn't happen quickly, but the inky death slowly receded.

I kept my promise and turned my life around. I taught myself how to write and to paint abstract art. I learned to love myself.

But an old terror smoldered on.

Here in the Michigan prison system, there lives a man named Dickie Hunt who survived a prison fire. Someone threw a cup of gasoline into his cell decades ago and lit him on fire. He doesn't look pretty.

Like so many other men in prison, I am terrified of becoming the next Dickie Hunt.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jerry Metcalf is a writer incarcerated in Michigan.