County jails once seemed like they might be a good target for regionalization, with a multi-county South Jersey facility possibly saving money over each county having its own jail costing tens of millions of dollars. But the increased costs of transportation, too little savings on construction and staffing, and isolation of inmates from family and friends all argue strongly against it.

The region’s counties have gone ahead with their own plans, and this month Cape May County opened a new correctional facility. It cost $37 million and can house 320 inmates, almost twice the capacity of the one it replaces.

That sounds like a lot of money until compared with the alternatives the county freeholders faced. Jailing inmates in other counties would have cost $12 million a year, including transportation. Enlarging and renovating the existing jail was estimated at $19 million to $29 million. The cost and completion date for a regional jail shared with other counties couldn’t be determined. Spreading the cost of the new jail over 30 years doesn’t increase the county tax rate.

The best thing about the new jail, though, is the modern approach to prison management it makes possible — direct supervision. This involves nearly constant oversight of prisoners by correctional officers who spend their shifts in the jail’s housing units, each of which can hold 64 inmates.

The design of the jail supports this by clustering the cells in pods instead of in long rows where only intermittent oversight is possible, and providing a day room for TV and indoor activities, eating and on-screen visits with relatives and others. An indoor-outdoor exercise room has vents to bring in fresh air.

Direct supervision allows officers to get to know the inmates, and recognize and respond to trouble before it escalates.

Prisoners know they’re always being watched and must follow the rules in order to maintain their level of freedom to move about and other privileges. Frequent or serious violations can result in a transfer to a medium or maximum security section.

This approach to prison management has been credited with reducing vandalism, enhancing inmate and officer safety, and creating a less stressful environment for inmates and officers alike.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons launched direct supervision in the early 1980s. It has been widely adopted, but also constrained by the need to keep the cost of prisons down and a public desire that unpleasant living conditions be part of the punishment for crimes.

Those factors may have contributed to what looks like the main shortcoming of the Cape May County Correctional Facility — its utter lack of natural light.

Providing natural light to the interior of prisons — and, indeed, all modern architecture — has been the trend for the past two decades. The longstanding guidelines of the American Correctional Association stipulate that inmate environments have access to natural light, at least 3 square feet of window per inmate.

The reason is obvious. Natural light makes a living space more comfortable, which is especially important now that guards are in it too. And it’s more therapeutic, crucial since mental illness is common in inmate populations. It’s also a way to reduce lighting costs.

The Cape jail has no exterior windows in the inmate section, just screened vents in the exercise space. Avoiding windows accessible by inmates does increase security, decrease contraband and escape attempts, and even improve energy efficiency. But those are just reasons to provide natural light through skylights beyond the reach of inmates. Perhaps they can still be added.

At the moment, the prison guards’ union is trying to get the county to increase staffing ratios, with the new jail and direct supervision approach as justification for more guards for the same number of inmates. A more positive, less stressful work environment shouldn’t require greater staffing levels.

The benefits of direct supervision extend beyond those for the guards and inmates to the citizens of Cape May County who will never see the inside of the new jail.

While the urge to ensure prisoners suffer for their crimes is understandable, harsh treatment only encourages them to blame others for their failures instead of themselves. Inmates still lose their liberty and endure constant supervision, which are significant deprivations.

Today’s inmate is tomorrow’s fellow resident — who could become a law-abiding contributor to the community or a repeat offender, even a career criminal. Many decades of discouraging the latter instead of encouraging the former failed miserably and helped give the United States one of the world’s biggest prison populations. Now it’s widely understood that using prison time to help inmates overcome their problems reduces crime and costs.

The new Cape May County jail is a reassuring major step in the right direction.

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