Heavy smoke from a "suspicious" fire forced the temporary evacuation of hundreds of inmates last night at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, authorities said.
Four alarms were sounded, bringing firefighters and equipment from Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties, as well as Fort Meade. No serious injury was reported, and damage appeared to be limited to the cells where officials suspect that the fire began.
"It went to four alarms because of the seriousness associated with the correctional institute," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a state Department of Corrections spokesman. "We didn't want to take any chances."
About 700 of the 1,375 prisoners at the House of Correction were evacuated from their cells, and off-duty state troopers were called to the prison to assist with security.
Corrections Commissioner Richard Lanham said damage was limited to cells in the fourth tier of the south wing. Four cells were destroyed and several others were damaged, said Lt. Robert Kornmann, an Anne Arundel Fire Department spokesman.
The cause was under investigation by the state fire marshal's office.
Mr. Lanham described the area as a "maximum and minimum security wing." He had no information about the identities of the inmates who had been assigned to the burned-out cells.
The fire was reported about 7:10 p.m. -- about an hour after the prisoners had finished dinner -- when correctional officers responded to smoke coming from cells in the south wing, which houses about 400 prisoners.
"Those officers actually went into cells that were on fire and got those men out of there," Mr. Sipes said. "They did their jobs very well."
About 60 pieces of equipment and 114 firefighters went to the prison complex.
Because smoke was so heavy, officials were forced to evacuate -- under heavy security -- some 400 inmates from the south wing into an exercise yard and then later into a dining area, along with some 300 inmates from an adjoining wing, Mr. Lanham said.
The state troopers remained at the prison about two hours, until the fire was declared under control.
No inmate disturbance was reported, and prison officials described the prisoners as "very cooperative."
Even so, "lock-down" security measures limiting prisoner movement remained in effect early today. Prison officials were conducting a head count in an effort to account for all the inmates.
Two inmates were reported treated for smoke inhalation at the scene, while one firefighter was treated at North Arundel General Hospital for minor injuries.
Mr. Lanham said the incident would have been much worse without the "quick action" of the correctional officers.