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The stories in Witness are first-person observations of events, occurrences and situations that took place in and around prisons. Prison Journalism Project has not verified the reporting with prison officials because we believe that doing so would put our writer at risk. This story was carefully evaluated for plausibility, and we worked with the writer to be as clear as possible about what they saw firsthand and where they got each piece of information.

Correction: The first sentence in the original Oct. 26 story should have said “on a Tuesday morning,” not “Tuesday morning,” which implied the fire had taken place in late October shortly before the Oct. 26 publication date. The report was about an incident in September.

An electrical fire broke out in a dorm after an electrical socket was blown at Arrendale State Prison, a women’s facility in Alto, Georgia, early on a Tuesday morning. The following is my eyewitness account. 

The incident occurred in E dorm, which has two sides, split by a control room through which it is possible to see the other side. I live in E dorm, and the fire was on the other side, but I could see what was happening. 

The first sign of trouble was when the fire alarm went off at around 8 a.m. I was asleep and immediately jumped up to see what was going on. When I stepped out of my cell, I saw other offenders from side 2 running towards the front of the building and banging on the window, but it was to no avail because there were no officers present. 

The offenders tried to put out the fire with blankets and then proceeded to break a window with a broken fan blade in an attempt to escape the fire and smoke.  

“I’ve never been in such dire circumstances,” said one offender, who was among those who escaped. “The overall living conditions of this place is the worst it has ever been.” 

When the officers finally showed up about 30 to 40 minutes later, inmates ran out screaming and shouting. I watched everything from the front window.

When the fire was put out, the women were instructed to go back into building, but they refused. The warden along with the other four officers came down with a gun loaded with big red balls and pepper spray. 

Several offenders put up their hands saying,”Don’t shoot,” and “We can’t go in there. The smoke is going to choke us.” 

Another offender, who asked to be anonymous, said that she heard an officer pleading with the crowd that “we only have four officers here, cut us a break.”

When a young lady leading the pack got maced, everyone complied with the order to return to the building in fear of getting the same treatment. They were locked behind their cell doors until about 5 p.m. two days later.

An offender, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of reprisal, said she got off the phone with a family member, who told her that they spoke to an officer who informed them that there was no fire. 

“My family asked to speak to the warden, and the officer advised that the warden was not present,” she said. 

Arrendale has the capacity to hold about 1,476 women according to the prison’s website. I estimate that there are currently about 1,100 women being held here. This latest incident highlights the insufficient personnel at this institution. 

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

L.J. is a writer incarcerated in Georgia.