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Jail May Have More Critics Than Inmates - Design: The man who runs the El Cajon facility says it's the worst he knows, and county Supervisor George Bailey wants a full review of the building that prisoners can literally kick their way out of.

December 11, 1989|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | MICHAEL GRANBERRY, TIMES STAFF WRITER

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?"

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