Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) directly intervened last year to stop the Justice Department from sending federal inspectors into local Mississippi prisons -- including the Biloxi jail in which 27 inmates died in a fire early Monday morning.
Federal inspectors never went into the Biloxi jail, and, even if they had, it is unclear whether they would have immediately noticed and removed the flammable polyurethane padding that spread smoke and toxic fumes through the ventilation system in the fatal fire, according to fire officials.
"The Justice Department is absolutely and totally out of order trying to tell local county jails what to have in their systems," Lott told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion Ledger in July, 1981. "Yes, we've got penal problems in Mississippi, but they do in New York and Maryland, too . . . . It's a fundamental federalist question."
Prison experts will now be brought in by the Department of Justice following Monday's catastrophe.
The Biloxi assistant fire chief said the 27 prisoners died after inhaling toxic fumes from polyurethane padding used in a cell.
The padded cell--the only one in the jail--was set afire by a prisoner with a long history of mental illness, police said.
Robert Eugene Pates, 31, now facing 27 counts of capital murder, told police today that he was "handed a lighted cigarette" by the two women inmates who perished in the fire.
He received only minor burns, although 61 other inmates and rescuers were injured in the blaze. Today, 53 people remained hospitalized, including 10 in critical condition.
Among the critically injured was jailer Tom Miller, who was overcome by smoke and fell unconscious with the keys needed to free inmates trapped in another cell block.
"Pates said he went to sleep and the cigarette apparently started the fire," Harrison County investigator J.J. Roberts said. "He said when he woke up there were flames."
Police said that the walls of the cell in which Pates was incarcerated on a public drunkenness charge were padded with three-inch thick polyurethane.
Ron Welch, head of the Mississippi Prisoners Defense Committee, said a federal court order requires the removal of all polyurethane from the Mississippi state prison.
Because the Biloxi jail housed excess state prisoners, it was also covered by a later federal order, he said. He claimed a federal inspection of the county jails would probably have led to removal of the polyurethane.
Since Jan. 1, 1977, the Mississippi state prison system has been under a federal court order to prevent overcrowding and other unconstitutional conditions at the prison, including overcrowding. Since then, the state has had as many as 1,200 state inmates at a time in the county jails, and the court later ordered the jails to comply with the same order. But the state has fought allowing federal inspectors into the local jails.
Justice Department spokesman John Wilson said the department began a new inquiry last August into allegations of "overcrowding" and "environmental deficiencies" in the jails in Biloxi and Gulfport, both in Lott's district. He said that investigation will now be "accelerated."
An attorney who was involved in the Mississippi prison case at Justice said the Biloxi case was initiated in August by department lawyers as an "end run to get around Lott's influence with high level officials in the Justice Department."
"Lott was instrumental in preventing the Justice Department from hiring experts," Welch said. "If we had had the experts we may have found the polyurethane foam in the cell padding."
Lott, through a spokesman, responded: "That charge is ridiculous and merits no further comment."
Lott's press aide in 1981 acknowledged that the congressman had intervened on behalf of the state. Lott felt that "the federal government should not be involved in the county jail system," spokesman Buddy Bynum said at the time.
In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Edward C. Schmults in October, 1981, Lott demanded to know why Justice had not fired the attorney who made the request for the federal inspections.
A compromise was reached under which the state would send its own inspectors into the prison and forward information to the Justice Department.
Welch charged that the state never actually conducted inspections. "All they did was write to the sheriff and ask 'What's going on in your jail?' " he said.