Cape May County Jail

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – The Board of Freeholders is expected to approve a package this month that will allow the county to bid out a new $37 million county jail. If the package is approved, the freeholders could receive bids as early June, Sheriff Gary Schaffer said.

If that happens, construction could begin by the end of the year.

“I’ve been trying for seven years to get a new jail,” Schaffer said. “We started with a lot of designs over the years, and even thought about a rehab, but that was too cost prohibitive.”

Last week, Schaffer said that he had a final meeting to go over an architect’s design for a new structure. According to the sheriff, the next step is to present the package at a freeholders’ meeting.

“We’re hoping to have authorization to bid the project at the April 14 meeting,” he said. According to the sheriff, that approval is likely.

On Monday, March 30, Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said the county is overdue for a larger space to house inmates. “We’ve spent 10 years out of compliance,” Thornton said. “We’ve had the risk of being shut down.”

Thornton said that for at least the last decade, the jail has been overcrowded, with an average of about 250 inmates at any given time. According to the freeholder, the jail was only designed to hold 170.

“We’ve absolutely been doubled up in the cells,” Thornton said. “From a security perspective, and the safety of the corrections officers and inmates, that doesn’t present well.”

Thornton said the risk without a new, larger jail, is that either the state or federal government could step in to take over. “We haven’t been in federal or state compliance,” he said. “That’s why we had to address this issue now.”

Several years ago, when freeholders were thinking about refurbishing the jail, they approved but never used a $20 million bond.

“We had an original study about refurbishing the jail that had been going on for about six years,” Thornton said. “We were going to refurbish for about $20 million, but we still wouldn’t have been in compliance.”

That sent the county back to the drawing board. According to Thornton, Warden Donald Lombardo and Ann Marie McMahon, county director of Facilities and Services, worked with engineers as well as Schaffer to design the new building. In addition to her other duties, McMahon is also an architect, and both the sheriff and warden provided a needed security perspective, Thornton said.

Shaffer said that the design for the new jail includes an infirmary to cut down on hospital costs, as well as a court room, which could also save money.

According to Thornton, the structure is expected to be about 96,000 square feet, and will include more cells for women.

“One of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the years is an increase in female inmates,” the freeholder said.

Overall, the new jail is expected to have 344 cells, as well as 10 holding cells, he said.

If the package is approved at the freeholders’ meeting, bids would be opened sometime this summer, and construction could begin by the end of the year, Thornton said.

The old jail would stand until the new one is finished – about two years, Schaffer said. The new jail would be built behind the current structure. Once finished, the old jail would be leveled for a parking lot.

“Our initial bond for the refurbishment was around $20 million,” Thornton said. “The bond issue now is around $37 million. One reason we’re doing this now is because our interest rate is so low – around 2.02 percent.”

According to Thornton, building the new jail will not increase county taxes. “We watch our bond indebtedness,” he said. “As it decreases, we issue new bonds.”

David Benson can be reached at david.benson@catamaranmedia.com

Middle Township Gazette reporter. Call me anytime you have news for the paper or the website. 609-365-6176