Construction is set to begin in the coming weeks on an Ector County Detention Center expansion that county officials expect will relieve a years-long struggle with crowding under the threat of state sanctions.

The $18.9 million project, funded through debt, will add 412 beds to the jail in a new 60,000 square foot building. It will be a permanent structure permitted to house even the highest security inmates.

County Judge Ron Eckert called the project long overdue, during a groundbreaking event on Thursday.

The jail addition is expected to open in about 20 months.

“If the population doesn’t grow too much between now and then, we should have a couple hundred empty beds and we can feel sure they won’t get overcrowded,” Sheriff Mike Griffis said.

The Ector County jail today has 667 beds. And the expansion will be the first for the jail since it was built in the mid-1990s, Griffis said.

Now, about 150 Ector County inmates are housed at other jails under contracts with eight counties at a cost of about $8,000 per day.

The county budgeted around $3 million for this fiscal year for housing inmates outside of the county jail, which also includes the cost of transporting those inmates back and forth to the courthouse.

Besides cutting down on costs, county officials say the jail expansion will improve safety by eliminating the long inmate transports and it will reduce the amount of missed court dates and delays, while making sure defendants in cases can more easily stay in contact with their lawyers.

The expanded jail will require about 20 additional workers, Griffis said, adding he expected to ask the county to fund some staff increases in the meantime. Those workers would focus on transporting prisoners until crews finish the jail expansion.

Today, the county has 127 jailer positions with 14 vacancies.

Griffis said the crews could begin work on the jail expansion once a final building permit is issued.

“I sure hope it will be next week,” the sheriff said. “Time is money.”