Judge will release prisoners from jail he says is unsafe

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Fayette County General Sessions Judge Mike Whitaker plans to release about 17 inmates from a county jail in Somerville he called a "fire trap."

"We've run it as long as we can. We've taken a chance as long as we can," Whitaker said of the jail about 40 miles east of Memphis.

"Even as much as a Bible burning can kill them all." Whitaker has no jurisdiction over about 60 felons at the jail who are in state custody, and only those inmates with misdemeanor charges are expected to be freed on Monday and Tuesday morning when they appear in court.

Recently the judge instructed police to charge suspects with no more than two misdemeanor charges per incident.

Whitaker said the jail has various problems including no automated locks and too few emergency exits. He said it would take a guard "fully five minutes" to clear the building if the guard were willing to battle the smoke to do so.

He plans to release some inmates on their own recognizance, place some in drug treatment facilities and suspend some sentences until a new jail opens in November.

Fayette County Sheriff Bobby Riles said Friday he does not agree that the 50-year-old jail is a fire hazard. "The fire marshal came down in August," he said. "... We spent over $35,000 correcting those deficiencies that we had to do and the fire marshal came back in October for a re-inspection and the jail passed."

Corrections included removing chains from cell doors and adding smoke detectors, fireproof doors and fire extinguishers.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)