SAN DIEGO — Illegal immigrants being housed at a privately run jail at Miramar Naval Air Station set mattresses and sheets ablaze Friday, spreading fire and panic that left more than two dozen inmates injured and two cell blocks severely damaged.
About 10 inmates who were disgruntled over the loss of canteen privileges at the newly opened jail started the fires, and as black smoke filled the cellblocks other prisoners became panicky and tried to escape, U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin said.
Bersin said he would not term the incident a riot because the guards never lost control, nor did prisoners get outside the controlled areas. The melee was put down within 45 minutes by a task force of civilian and military law enforcement and firefighting personnel.
The 28 injured inmates, suffering smoke inhalation and minor cuts, were taken to civilian hospitals. None of the 210 military prisoners at the Miramar brig, who are housed separately, were involved.
As a precaution, the 134 federal inmates who were not injured were returned to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego. Many were black from soot. All but a handful are illegal immigrants suspected or convicted of felonies, authorities said.
The use of a military brig to hold illegal immigrants was a novel approach championed by Bersin and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. With military downsizing, there is excess capacity at the Miramar brig.
The brig was expanded to accommodate up to 380 nonmilitary inmates. Barriers were built to keep nonmilitary and military separate at all times. The plan to have the detainees at Miramar was intended to last for only 18 months to ease overcrowding at the Metropolitan Correctional Center while a plan is developed for a new jail off base.
The Miramar facility for illegal immigrants, which opened two weeks ago, is run by Louisville-based U.S. Corrections Corp. When it opened, a corporation spokesman bragged that the $11-million contract made the firm "the industry leader."
Secretary of the Navy John Dalton issued a statement promising a "very hard look at the entire situation" before nonmilitary federal inmates are allowed to return to Miramar.
The four Republican members of Congress from San Diego County, all of whom had doubted the wisdom of housing illegal immigrants at Miramar, were quick to say that the fire and melee show the failure of the Clinton administration's efforts at stopping illegal immigration and of the idea of housing illegal immigrants at Miramar.
"It's an outrage," said Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego). He said having the immigrants on base "endangers national security."
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), said, "We will not tolerate destructive and dangerous behavior from those who are in this country illegally."