It was just after lunchtime in the day room of Cell Pod A1, midway through "The Maury Povich Show" and a gin rummy game, when a guard called out that it was nearly time for inmates to return to their cells.

"Man, we've just been out here less than an hour and a half," said a lanky, middle-aged inmate, his face and tone suggesting defiance but his low mumble acknowledging defeat.

Just 2 1/2 years after it opened, the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford -- which serves Stafford, Spotsylvania and King George counties and the City of Fredericksburg -- holds an average of 800 to 850 prisoners a day. That is about 200 more than it was built for, and a population officials weren't expecting to reach until 2007.

Without the space and staff to properly monitor inmates -- 40 percent of whom are awaiting trial -- officials say they have no choice but to keep the inmates in their cells 18 hours a day. Computers and books are being packed so libraries can become dorms, and 8-by-11-foot cells designed for two inmates are housing three -- one of whom sleeps on a plastic cot called a "boat" by inmates.

But Rappahannock Regional is not just a story of numbers, of a criminal population multiplying along with the rest of swelling north-central Virginia. It documents the spread of crime to an area that still thinks of itself as rural and immune to big-city problems.

"If people would just get in the habit of locking their cars and their homes," said 1st Sgt. Shawn Kimmitz, 31, of the Stafford County sheriff's office, who patrols the county's many subdivisions and the back lots of its malls on his nightly shifts.

In the history of jail crowding, Rappahannock Regional is nothing spectacular. Stories of inmates sleeping on soiled mattresses in the hallways of the D.C. jail made news in the 1980s, and the downtown Fredericksburg jail that Rappahannock replaced closed with 300 inmates -- nearly four times its intended population.

Adding to the problem was the state's decision to save money by closing at least one of its prisons, thus spreading inmates among county jails.

About one-fourth of the people at Rappahannock Regional have either been accused or convicted of a violent felony, and a large percentage of the charges involve drugs. Training for jail employees involves learning about gang behavior, and the wall next to the phone in the intake room is plastered with ads for new bail-bond businesses.

"Let's put it this way -- it's not like I'm worried about being out of work," said Officer Peter Ries, a former minister who is the security officer in the jail's kitchen. "It's a business, and it's growing."

The jurisdictions served by the jail still count their annual homicides in single digits, but violent crimes such as rape and armed robbery are on the rise. Domestic violence and drug possession still top the list of common crimes.

As the region has become more than a pit stop on Interstate 95 and more than a bedroom community for Washington and Richmond, each about 50 miles away, law enforcement officials say they see a disturbing sign of the area's independence: its own criminal ecosystem. Those who commit crimes in the area tend to have a local base of operations, Stafford County Sheriff Charlie Jett said.

"We used to be the bastard children of Northern Virginia, but I think we've grown into our own identity. The people we deal with on a daily basis, it seems like they stay within the geographical limits," Jett said.

Rappahannock Regional's crowding is attributable in part to a series of Virginia laws aimed at locking up more people and keeping them locked up longer. Jails across the state, including those in Roanoke and Augusta counties and the Prince William-Manassas facility, have experienced serious crowding. Some have built additions, others have increased home-incarceration programs, and still others have sent inmates to other jurisdictions.

In 1995, state legislators eliminated parole and decreed that prisoners must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. A few years later, they did away with "good time," which meant prisoners could no longer lop time off their sentences by good behavior. A couple of years ago, they brought state bail law into closer alignment with federal law, making most people accused of serious crimes ineligible for bail.

Abolishing parole increased the jail population by about one-third, according to Stephen Bishop, facilities manager at Rappahannock Regional.

Against that backdrop, some prominent law enforcement officials in one of Virginia's most conservative regions are calling for less emphasis on incarceration.

"We're coming to a fork in the road," said Larry Hamilton, superintendent at Rappahannock Regional.

"You can continue to incarcerate people or we need to increase programs like work release, diversion centers, drug courts -- those kinds of things.

"I know if you lock everyone up, there's less money for schools, for ballparks," Hamilton said. "It's a philosophical debate."

Hamilton believes that crime is down across the country in recent years because criminals -- many of whom are repeat offenders -- are behind bars longer. But many inmates are nonviolent offenders, and Hamilton says that is an expensive punishment that may not be worth the cost.

Increasingly, local and regional jails also serve as temporary housing for inmates sentenced to serve time in state prisons.

Rappahannock was built for those awaiting trial or those sentenced to less than a year in jail.

Although the state is required to take prisoners with longer sentences, Hamilton said 14 percent of his inmates are state prisoners who shouldn't be there.

Many local law enforcement officials believe that the state Department of Corrections is balancing its budget on their backs. The state pays local jails $16 a day to house its inmates, then charges about twice that much to rent space to out-of-state inmates or federal prisoners, Spotsylvania County Attorney Bill Neely said.

"It keeps the local jails jammed," he said.

Rappahannock Regional holds about 200 more prisoners than it was built for, forcing officials to restrict recreation and keep inmates in cells 18 hours a day.Said jail Superintendent Larry Hamilton: "We're coming to a fork in the road. You can continue to incarcerate people or we need to increase programs like work release, diversion centers, drug courts -- those kinds of things."

Joseph Alford, left, and Alonzia Coe at the Rappahannock Regional Jail, which is so crowded that cells for two inmates now house three.