By Maddy Vitale
The new $37 million Cape May County Correctional Facility opening in mid-January will be a dramatic departure from the “lock ’em up, throw away the key” mentality.
Officials overseeing the expansive project that was five years in the making explained during a media tour Monday that the new jail will represent a better, more humane way of handling inmates.
The facility, at 125 Crest Haven Road, next to the Cape May County Veterans Cemetery, will be able to house 320 inmates. It is adjacent to the current jail. Built in the 1970s, the deteriorating old jail will be torn down within six months, officials said. It was built to hold about 190 inmates.
In keeping with the new jail’s innovative approach, Cape May County Sheriff Bob Nolan said he attended training sessions about “direct supervision,” a way of handling inmates in a more open environment.
“I went to training about this type of supervision. An inmate is better off and safer, and the number of officer-related injuries and assaults decrease when inmates are not in cages,” Nolan said. “The officers are there but it is more like community policing.”
Instead of barriers and doors or gates, inmates are with the officers. However, some of the freedoms are restricted in cases such as maximum security inmates.
Nolan said each officer will be assigned to an area for 90 days so he or she will become versed in the unit.
“Officers will have a keener sense for what is going on,” he said of the more open environment. “Some feel it is more dangerous, but the old style is archaic.”
Currently there are 190 inmates, including 35 women, housed at the old jail.
Warden Don Lombardo called the new facility “a great step for Cape May County.”
“The jail is built for security, everything is state-of-the-art and it provides everything that needs to be in there,” he said.
Correctional facility personnel are ready for the new way of working with inmates, officials said.
They each have received training on interpersonal skills.
Correctional Officer Patrick Netherby believes the staff is ready for new, more open, interactions with inmates.
“Ultimately, you are creating a certain amount of freedom and the hope is that the inmate will see that and want to behave,” Netherby noted.
Capt. Charles Magill, who led the tour, said the new ways are geared toward creating a more positive atmosphere for the personnel and the inmates.
Magill also said the goal is to provide a higher quality facility that is more suitable for the inmates.
He noted that for years the county has had issues with overcrowding.
The new jail will change all of that, he said.
Back in 2009, the number of inmates increased to 240. Some had to be double and even triple bunked in a room.
Cape May County officials modeled the new facility after the correctional facility in Ocean County, which also utilizes direct supervision.
Combining safety, in a top notch facility, were the main goals, officials said.
Unlike the old jail, minimal barriers are a part of the new structure. Instead, doors with thick glass replace metal ones, giving a more open feel.
The officers and the inmates are not separated by barriers in the intake processing room or the “dayrooms.”
In all, the 85,000-square-foot facility includes a large laundry room, a kitchen and five dayrooms. Each dayroom holds up to 64 inmates. Some of the cells or sleeping areas are open and some are closed, depending on security level of the inmates housed there.
Each of the dayrooms has showers. There is also a metal enclosure for problem inmates to be supervised more easily. There is also a rubber room, where an inmate is placed if he or she is a danger to himself or others.
The dayrooms feature televisions. Inmates will be able to buy devices and earphones to listen to TV, which will help alleviate problems with disruption of other inmates.
There are also six cells in the medical unit, which includes dental and services by physicians. Other medical personnel include two nurses and an LPN.
Officials said the new jail provides much more room for inmates. It will enable them to separate troubled inmates from the rest of the population much easier because there are more rooms available.
In addition to the building, inmates will notice another major change — no outside time.
Instead, recess breaks will be limited to time in a room with a basketball court. There also will not be face-to-face visitation unless there are special circumstances, or if it is for legal consultations.
Officials said there were complaints over the years about the inmates from people who attended funerals or visited the Veterans Cemetery.
What may seem like an amenity for an inmate is also something that helps with safety, officials explained.
Video visitation will cost an inmate $10 to speak to a loved one for about 20 minutes. The loved one could either come to the jail and use one of four video phones or call from his or her cellphone or laptop.
Magill said it is an ideal way for inmates to speak to family or friends, especially when there are children involved.
“This is not an environment for children,” he said.
The video visitation is a secure way to handle inmates as well.
Magill said it eliminates risk of inmates fighting when going to visitation or other security issues.
“We are using technology to make it safer,” Magill added.
Officials said Cape May County had four options: close the jail, regionalize, rehab the deteriorating existing facility or open a new one. Despite the hefty price tag of about $37 million for the new jail, in the long run, it was the most efficient way to go, they said.
On average, according to documents provided during the tour, the old jail cost the county $500,000 annually in additional expenses for unforeseen problems with utilities and maintenance.
“Looking at the economics, the freeholders did the best thing,” Nolan said.
Nolan, who began his career as a corrections officer 35 years ago, said the county has needed a new jail for many years. He said back in the late 1990s the increase in inmate numbers and the antiquated facilities were bad.
“As an officer, and as a sheriff, I have seen a lot,” Nolan said. “Getting a new jail is something I have dreamed of for a long time.”