It appears that Arlington County is going to get a new high-rise jail, but is that any reason to raze the old one?

County Manager Anton S. Gardner maintains that the current jail is contaminated with asbestos, has cracks in its walls and floors as well as overwhelming plumbing and ventilation problems. He has been quoted as saying that anyone who took a tour of the building would see that it has "outlived its usefulness" and isn't worth saving.

I decided to take Gardner at his word and arranged for such a tour. From the county board discussions I had heard, I expected to find a dangerously overcrowded building, a crumbling ruin with insulation hanging from the rafters.

The reality is quite different.

Our tour, conducted one Friday by the jail's chief deputy, revealed a building that was in need of remedial maintenance, but that was structurally solid -- after all, it's only 16 years old and was fitted out with an addition just five years ago. Aesthetically, it's no Hotel Ritz, but it is clean and orderly. The floors are free of debris and the walls of graffiti. The kitchen is well-kept, the inmates' beds neatly made.

The jail has a rated capacity of 164, the number of inmates the state decided that it could ideally hold for stays longer than 24 hours. The key word here is ideally. Although its rated capacity is 164, that does not mean that more people cannot be comfortably accommodated through double-bunking or other means, particularly because the average inmate stay is only two weeks. The 164 number is also misleading because it does not take into account space in the holding and receiving areas.

On the day of my visit, for example, the inmate population was 344, including prisoners in the holding areas. Even so, crowding did not seem to be a big problem.

Most of the inmates were clustered around television sets, playing cards or making phone calls. The law library, which doubles as a classroom, was empty. A large (approximately 40-by-60 foot) two-story gym also was vacant, as was the outdoor roof-top recreational area.

Our tour guide told us that the gym was empty because that Friday was designated for outdoor recreation. But the rooftop area was empty too. Further, if crowding was such a problem, why weren't both areas -- instead of neither -- being used on all days? I had to wonder how facilities that apparently see so little use could really be worn out.

Contrary to reports, I also saw no exposed asbestos. If airborne asbestos is nevertheless a risk, it surely would be cheaper and less risky to remove it during a renovation rather than a demolition.

Gardner has said publicly that plumbing and ventilation problems are so overwhelming that renovating the detention center would mean gutting it. But most people would agree that commercial plumbing systems generally last longer than 16 years. And the air conditioning seemed adequate, if uneven and inefficient because security walls block air-intake vents -- a readily fixable situation.

As to structural soundness, the building may have shifted by about an inch (perhaps due to excavation for an adjacent new office building), but it still seemed solid.

Contrary to Gardner's expectations, a tour of the jail showed me that, rather than being a dead loss, it has many useful years left, particularly if renovated for a related purpose.

During the past five years Arlington taxpayers have spent $2.5 million to build a 44-cell addition, furbish the jail with new toilets and upgrade the heating and ventilation systems. It would be criminal to raze this building now because it no longer glitters and sparkles.

If your house has a plumbing problem, you call in a plumber, not the wrecking ball. -- Laura A. Holmes