Incarceration as Disaster: Risk, Architecture, and and the 1975 Sanford Jail Fire

Melanie Newport, University of Connecticut

When is incarceration a disaster? While the ongoing horrors of the rise of the carceral state are well documented, scholars have not yet considered how the idea and event of disaster shaped the rise of the American carceral state. As part of a larger project assessing the history of how disasters have impacted incarcerated people, this paper looks to the 1975 Sanford Jail Fire in Seminole County Florida to recover the origins of carceral disaster mitigation that shaped the experiences of incarcerated people during and after the Loma Prieta earthquake, Hurricane Andrew, and Hurricane Katrina. While jail fires had been common in jails since their emergence in the colonial era, efforts to ensure the survivability of jail came relatively late in their institutional development. Contrasted against the Ohio Penitentiary Fire of 1930, which killed 322, the Attica Prison Rebellion, where police bullets killed 42 of 43 people who died, and a broader movement to limit jail suicides in the 1970s and 1980s, the fire in Sanford shows how disaster made space for new assumptions and contradictions about the role of the state in protecting the lives of incarcerated people. Assessing the political and technological factors that led to the deaths of 11 people, this paper highlights that two objects that became the focus of carceral disaster mitigation after Sanford— smoke detectors and mattresses— became symbols of a larger contest over the standardization and regulation of carceral architecture and procurement that was one of the unheralded consequences of the War on Crime. Placing exceptional events in the history of prisoner rights and politics, the response to the Sanford Jail Fire shows that controlling the risks assumed by the state through insurance, architecture, and training was a bipartisan priority driving the rationalization of carceral statebuilding in the late twentieth century United States.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 202. The Carceral State and Crises of Capitalism and Governance in 1970s America