Ben McLaughlin, the captain in charge of the County Jail in El Cajon, peered out a window into Module 7-C, from which 10 inmates have escaped since the jail began housing them in 1983.
On a recent morning, most of the men were locked in their cells (six on two triple bunks in each) during yet another "lockdown." In addition to escapes, the jail has a history of riots and in-house disruptions.
"Boss, we're having a security problem right now," the guard said, referring to the threat of a fight breaking out.
McLaughlin shook his head. Three out of seven prisoners remain at large after the most recent escape last month, he said, the third in six years. During the first escape in 1984, one prisoner fell to his death while shinnying down a makeshift rope of sheets.
The captain, who has worked at the jail for almost two years, blames its architectural design and what he called its shoddy construction for the frequent escapes and for most of the other problems that haunt the most problematic jail in the history of San Diego County.
"No unity, no continuity, no working floor plan," he said with a scowl. "It's spasmodic, it's hit and miss. . . . It's a mess."
McLaughlin calls it the most poorly designed and worst-constructed jail that he knows anything about, and, at 48, he has spent his entire adult life in law enforcement. He says it may be everything a jail should not be, the antithesis of the new County Jail in Vista, which he calls "state-of-the-art, designed to do just what it's supposed to do, house inmates in a safe, efficient manner."
County Supervisor George Bailey, whose district includes El Cajon, agrees that the jail is a mess, a multimillion-dollar turkey or lemon, depending on your choice of metaphor. Bailey has called for a full review of the jail--its design and construction, as well as who ought to manage it--and plans to announce his recommendations at a Board of Supervisors meeting early next year.
This week, he hopes to receive a report from the county's Department of General Services, which plans to advise that the walls of the jail--which are made of plastic foam--be reinforced with galvanized sheet metal. The cost of the renovation, which Bailey calls "a Band-Aid" that won't solve the problem, is an estimated $800,000, which is what the county saved in resorting to cost-cutting measures in the first place.
"Something needs to be done, and soon," Bailey said, "although I'm adamantly opposed to almost $1 million for a temporary measure."
In the most recent escape, Nov. 5, seven prisoners used their fists and feet to punch through the wall in 7-C and descended to the ground, climbing down a rope made of bedsheets.
As another temporary measure, McLaughlin has won approval to have all bedsheets taken away. Each prisoner will soon be issued two wool blankets--one for lying on, the other for cover--in the hope that wool makes a lousier rope than sheets do.
Bailey was livid after last month's escape.
"You have foam stuck on top of a dry wall," he said. "You can pick through it in a matter of minutes. I'm no expert on construction, but I do know enough about jails to know you'd never put that kind of a wall on a jail. It doesn't make sense."
Jane Huston, director of the Department of General Services, said she was asked by Sheriff John Duffy, who oversees the jails, to outfit a sample cell in the El Cajon facility with what some people are calling "the sheet-metal solution." She expects to have it approved at a Board of Supervisors meeting in January.
But Bailey may argue for a long-term solution--such as a whole new jail. McLaughlin, who has to deal with the place on a day-to-day basis, also favors a new facility, with the current one being converted to badly needed courtrooms.
"If that facility is as godawful inefficient as the sheriff says it is, then we ought to look toward building a new jail," Bailey said, "and get on with it."
McLaughlin, Bailey, Huston, Duffy--just about everyone connected with the jail--say it is the victim of the era of retrenchment that began in earnest in California in the early part of the decade, after the passage of the property tax-cutting initiative, Proposition 13, in 1978.
The choice of building materials, such as plastic foam on the walls, came about, Huston said, because money was scarce. She said the composition of the wall is "plastic and wire mesh and a Styrofoam filling with a textured outer cover," which, from East Main Street outside, makes it look like any other sleek, modern building, elegant and firm.
"In retrospect, was it a bad decision?" Huston asked. "Well, at the time, everyone did the best they could. Hindsight is always much easier. But, because of Prop. 13, everyone was scared. People tried to cut corners every way they could."
A report prepared by Bailey notes that problems beset the structure almost from the day the architectural contract was awarded in 1976. That went to local architects Richard George Wheeler and Frank L. Hope, neither of whom returned phone calls from The Times. Proposition 13 contributed first to delays; then, after dissension over the size of the building, the plans were redrawn. Construction began in the summer of 1980.
When bids were awarded, they went not to one general contractor but to a series of subcontractors. Inflation rates at the time hovered in the serious double digits. It was decided that the walls would consist of a new material called Drivit--the trade name for the mixture of drywall with plastic foam and textured coating. The estimated savings: $700,000 to $800,000.
In short, Bailey said, the project was screwed up "from stem to stern."
In constructing the walls, mistakes were made that weakened them further. McLaughlin said a type of "hog wire, sprayed with blow-on cement, a light mixture of concrete and fiber," is meant to secure the plastic foam all along the wall, but, for some reason, it has been omitted from key sections. Authorities discovered that when one of the seven inmates put his foot through the wall in trying to escape Nov. 5. He was aiming for a window and missed, McLaughlin said, only to discover that the wall "did the trick for him."
Despite the brouhaha over construction, virtually everyone connected with the Sheriff's Department cites overcrowding as the worst problem facing the El Cajon jail or any other in the county. Seven inmates recently escaped from the South Bay Detention Facility in Chula Vista by greasing themselves with butter and body lotion and crawling through a narrow window--the same type of window used in El Cajon. (McLaughlin said the walls of the South Bay jail, however, are stronger.)
At the moment, McLaughlin said, the El Cajon jail is well over capacity--it has 442 inmates in a facility built for 120. It saw its highest population in early 1987--some 830 inmates.
"Too many rats in the cage," as Bailey put it, leads to problems other than escape. Because of the vertical design of the building--a concept that McLaughlin, for one, abhors--inmates on the seventh floor routinely plug up the toilets, flooding the floors below. That means the probation staffers on the fifth floor never really know when it's going to rain, but they are aware of the threat, any moment of the day or night.
"It's horrible," McLaughlin said. "They treat the toilet like a garbage disposal, and, for the most part, they do it deliberately. The poor people in probation are working in an untenable environment. Every night before they leave, they cover their desks with plastic. If they don't, first thing in the morning their desks are sopping wet."
The threat of escape, the toilets, the fights that break out on the jailhouse floor--a Latino-black melee last year involved more than 100 prisoners, resulting in 19 injuries--and a staff of 9 deputies trying to police 50 times that number, none of it bothers McLaughlin as much as the building's central flaws. He says no jail should have a vertical construction and that if it does, it should have a central command post, which this one doesn't. (In the 9-story building, inmates are kept on the 6th, 7th and 8th floors.)
"Everything in the jail has to go through two elevators," McLaughlin said. "We're talking staff, clothing, bedding, nurses, food, inmates--everything. It's horribly inefficient."
As it stands, McLaughlin routinely has to cancel meetings--Narcotics Anonymous and the like--as well as church services because there are too few guards to chaperon too many inmates, and too few rooms with too few chairs to seat inmates who wish to attend.
"When that starts to happen," he said, "you've defeated the entire purpose of rehabilitation."
As the controversy swells, the recent problems of Sheriff Duffy--ranging from allegations of unreported outside income to absenteeism to being unresponsive to charges of jail beatings by guards--now include the questions about the El Cajon complex. Bailey isn't sure the sheriff is the best person to manage the jails, that maybe the problem starts at the top.
Susan Golding, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, recently suggested that the board should run the jails.
"I'm not happy with the Sheriff's Department," Bailey said. "Nobody in their right mind would want to run the (El Cajon) jail. But can it get any worse out there? I ask you, can it?"