An attempt by a prisoner in the Arlington County Detention Center to escape by crawling through a ceiling space yesterday morning fell through -- literally -- when the prisoner broke a ceiling tile with his foot and dropped to the floor outside the General District Court judges' offices.

"We don't always have the nicest hotel on earth," said Arlington Sheriff James A. Gondles after Dominic Williams, 18, was safely returned to jail. "People want to check out before they're supposed to."

Williams was in a lockup behind the third-floor General District criminal courtroom when he stood on a toilet, punched through the ceiling, slid beside an air vent and hoisted himself through the 9-by-15-inch hole, according to Gondles.

Williams "went up through the little hole and then stepped on a dropped ceiling about 25 to 50 feet away from where he went up," Gondles said.

Deputy Ted Zahorbenski, who was in a nearby corridor, ran to restrain Williams. Traffic court proceedings in an adjacent room took an abrupt recess. A deputy clerk, when told of the reason for the commotion, fainted.

"We're not used to having people drop through the ceiling," said Jane Duffy, secretary to the General District judges.

Williams, of 1436 18th Place SE, was arrested Tuesday and charged with possession of a concealed weapon and attempted grand larceny of an auto. He was not injured in the fall, Gondles said.

"But it's kind of a big mess right now. A lot of the ceiling tiles came down. The exit light is dangling by a cord," he said.

Prisoners have tried several other times to escape through ceiling spaces, but none has succeeded, Gondles said.

Williams, whose bond originally was set at $6,000, is now being held without bond in the Arlington jail.