The Jail With a Built-in Breakout Plan

El Cajon is a city in San Diego County, California, about a 20-minute drive from San Diego proper. (Here’s a map.) It was founded in 1912 and starting in 1983, was the home to the El Cajon Jail, a county facility. But if you go to El Cajon today, you won’t find the jail there anymore — the county shut it down just a few years after opening it.

The reason why?

Embarrassment, mostly. 

The problem began in the summer of 1989 when a San Diego man named John J. Pugh was sentenced to six years in prison for burglary. He was caught climbing into someone else’s house through a window, and it wasn’t his first time in trouble for burglary — he had spent nine or so years behind bars for similar crimes. Pugh was sent to El Cajon to serve his time, but he didn’t really like it there. So, he left. The San Diego Reader explains the beginning of his escape plan:

If not for the overcrowded nature of the El Cajon jail, Pugh might never have made his jailbreak. But as it is, some inmates are housed in jail dayrooms, designed originally for watching TV and lounging. Bunk beds in Pugh’s dayroom, painted the color of a jaundiced pumpkin, are stacked three-high. Pugh, who was housed on the seventh floor of the nine-story building, slept in a top bunk, inches away from a ceiling vent, which, he noticed one day in mid-July, was held by very loose screws. He removed the screws and tunneled through the crawl space above, eventually finding, between the seventh and eighth floors, a small window with a view to freedom.

Pugh already had some experience climbing through windows — that’s how he ended up in El Cajon in the first place — and figured he could use this window as a way out. It wasn’t the first time someone had tried a similar escape — roughly ten others had a similar idea. (Per the Reader, “One man died after a knot came loose in his rope of bedsheets and he fell five stories in an August 1984 escape attempt.”) But once he removed the window, he found it was too small of an opening for him to fit through. He was about to give up when, out of frustration, he bumped his head against the wall — and realized that the walls weren’t all that hard. Most of the prison’s walls were made of concrete, but this felt different. He dug into the wall using the same piece of metal he had used to remove the window and discovered that the wall was just a thin layer of plaster covering about four or five inches of Styrofoam.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, Pugh escaped rather easily — he simply “kick[ed] a hole in the building’s exterior wall” and then used his bedsheet rope to lower himself down to the ground.

How could an inmate kick through a wall? Because ultimately, money matters. Building a prison is expensive — the county jail at El Cajon cost roughly $38 million and was intended to house only about 100 inmates at a time. That’s a lot of money for what is, generally speaking, a necessary evil; unlike, say, a factory or a school, you’re not expecting the undertaking to result in increased productivity for society at large. Taking steps to keep costs down is typically very sensible. And, as the New York Times reported, “It turned out that the San Diego County Board of Supervisors itself had decided a decade before [the escape] to save $600,000 by cutting out the concrete” in the upper floors of the jail. It seemed like a sensible enough decision — keeping higher floors lighter puts less weight on lower floors, and, as that August 1984 escapee learned the hard way, it’s not all that safe to lower yourself to the ground from seven stories above. Besides, how would anyone notice that the walls were made of Styrofoam?

Pugh’s escape changed that. While he was eventually caught, his story spread. In November of 1989, just months after Pugh’s escape, seven other men “were able to punch a hole in a wall and escape,” per the Los Angeles Times. Once again, the wall’s cheap materials were to blame; as County Supervisor George Bailey told the Times, “On the outside walls, you have foam stuck on top of a drywall. 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 wall on a jail. It just doesn’t make sense.”

A month after that, some of the escaped convicts were still at large, and the threat of more prison breaks loomed large. Bailey asked the relevant government agency to figure out how much it would cost to fix the problem, and in a follow-up report with the Times, shared the bad news: “The cost of the renovation, which Bailey calls ‘a Band-Aid’ that won’t solve the problem, is an estimated $800,000,” more than the original cost savings. Even worse, to make the repairs, the jail would have to be empty — all of the inmates would have had to be temporarily relocated to another facility.

Those repairs never came to pass. A few other inmates escaped using the same strategy Pugh succeded with, and ultimately, the county realized the jail was a lost cause. In 1991, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to close the jail altogether.

Bonus fact: If you break into a car, there’s a good chance you’ll go to jail. But if you’re in jail for breaking into a car, there’s also a slight chance you’ll get to be a hero. In 2019, a Florida man learned this when he accidentally locked his keys in his SUV — a mistake made potentially tragic because his one-year-old daughter was still inside. Luckily for him and his daughter, though, help was nearby, as local news reported: “a group of deputies was nearby, and they enlisted the help of inmates. [. . . ] Five low-risk offenders, who were repairing medians outside the West Pasco Judicial Center, jumped into action.” The inmates were able to break into the car in a matter of minutes. As Sheriff Chris Nocco told the press, the inmates’ “unique skill set” came in handy.

From the Archives: How to Punch Your Way out of Prison: This works even if the walls aren’t made out of Styrofoam.