Cape May County’s jail was built in 1976, when the county had 36,000 fewer people, to accommodate 169 inmates.

Today, 220 prisoners is typical, and at times it has housed 300, squeezing three to a cell with bunk beds and a mattress on the ground. That has earned it negative annual reviews from the state Department of Corrections in recent years, including its most recent review this past week.

“You’ve got different standards, old equipment and too many inmates, so the conclusion is we have problems,” warden Donald Lombardo said.

This spring, the county plans to start a long-delayed expansion project that will both increase the capacity to 352 and make the whole facility in Cape May Court House more secure.

Throughout South Jersey, counties have been dealing with the issue of overcrowding at their jails due to population increases.

Ocean County was dealing with an overcrowding issue when it started its expansion in 2008. At that point, the complex had different buildings that had a total capacity of about 280 but housed more than 500 at times. The new inmate capacity is 700.

Atlantic and Cumberland counties’ jails are also dealing with overcrowding.

Atlantic County’s Gerald L. Gormley Justice Facility opened in 1985 with a 398-prisoner capacity, and since then it has been expanded to house 825. Still, it has had to fit as many as 1,200 inmates at times.

Cumberland County once had more than 600 inmates in a jail designed for about 550, but Warden Robert Balicki said various programs that keep nonviolent offenders monitored outside of jail has reduced the current population to about 445.

“But construction is so expensive, and Cumberland’s the poorest county in the state, so I don’t see us running out and spending $75 million on a new jail,” Balicki said.

Lombardo said the primary reason for overcrowding in the region is population increases, but he noted that laws have changed in the past 20 to 30 years to give certain offenses minimum jail times.

“The bottom line is population increases everything,” Lombardo said.

Cape May County Sheriff Gary Schaffer, like Balicki, said overcrowding was worse before the implementation of work release and electronic monitoring programs.

Cape May County Freeholder Len Desiderio, who oversees the sheriff’s office, said he believes right now is the best time for the county to undertake the expansion, hoping to get low bids and low-cost materials because of the still-sluggish economy.

The main part of the estimated $15 million to $17 million project will be adding new wings to fit more inmates, but rearranging and updating the interior also will have significant effects on the day-to-day business there.

“The way this is set up, for officer security and everyone else, this is going to be a much better operation,” Schaffer said.

Currently, inmates are processed at the northern end of the facility, then escorted past offices to the southern section, where they are medically assessed and eventually housed. In the new facility, administrative functions will be separated from inmates.

Prisoners will travel less in general. Most functions, such as exercising and eating, will take place inside the prisoner wings, cutting down on potential incidents associated with moving inmates.

The courtyards will be adjacent to dormitories and enclosed so they are not visible from the outside. Currently, the courtyards are separated from the county veterans cemetery by only a few chainlink fences, a constant source of complaints from people burying their loved ones there.

The rehabilitated facility will also have its own infirmary, saving money on both hospital trips for inmates and overtime needed to pay corrections officers to transport them.

Those alone are tremendous costs, Schaffer said, totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

“The money we’re going to save with the infirmary and new medical room should just about pay for the bond,” he said.

County officials toured Ocean County’s new jail complex, completed in 2011, to better understand the modern concepts of prison construction. Ocean County Warden Theodore Hutler said the design of the $60 million facility there has cut down dramatically on medical costs and inmate assaults.

Instead of marching inmates to different rooms for different activities, their needs are brought to their cells, saving officer time and reducing the likelihood of problems.

“The more traffic you have, the more chance there is of an incident,” Hutler said.

Even with room to spare, Balicki said, his facility could use rehabilitation. Its first part was built in 1948, its second in 1976 and its third in 1987, so much of it is outdated and not designed to modern security standards.

Cape May County’s project has been delayed for years because of unexpected problems, such as having to remove old sewage pipes found underneath part of the property and bureaucratic delays with transferring a piece of property from the National Guard to the county.

The DOC is reviewing the county’s plans. If approved, construction could begin in the spring and be completed in 18 months.

“I hope no one we know has to go visit it,” Desiderio said. “I hope no one has to go visit the sheriff’s hotel.”

Contact Lee Procida:

609-463-6712

Follow @ACPressLee on Twitter