A sheriff who seized a state armory two years ago rather than turn loose prisoners from his crowded jail is preparing to move into the state's biggest and newest jail.

"It's almost hard to believe," Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr. said during a weekend tour of the new $73.5 million lockup.The state-built jail is a modernistic complex of 11 buildings ringed by double 16-foot fences topped with razor wire. It can house 1,211 inmates, including 126 women.

He said it would not take long to fill the new jail, which took 14 months to build.

Ashe's saga began in February 1990 when he marched into a National Guard armory in Springfield. Stunned guards watched as the sheriff installed 19 prisoners.

He said he could no longer live with the fear that one of the thousands of inmates he was forced to free from his jail would kill someone.

Ashe's 105-year-old jail was built to hold 276 inmates. He squeezed in 724 men.

Ashe was under a federal order since 1988 to hold no more than 500 and had a waiting list at the time of the seizure.