By Nelson Helm
Of the 1,500 businesses in Rockbridge County, John Higgins said about half of them have employed people serving jail time.
As superintendent of the Rockbridge Regional Jail, Higgins is in charge of prison work release. Localities, including Rockbridge County, began work release long before Higgins began at the jail in 1982. According to the Virginia Department of Corrections website, work release provides inmates opportunities for supervised and gradual reintegration into the community. Higgins said there are about 20 inmates currently involved in Rockbridge Regional’s work release program.
Higgins and Lt. Derrick Almarode, who handles the day-to-day operations of the program, said the process is no different than applying for a job, as both the DOC and jail run background checks on inmates before they are allowed to work in the community.
“The superintendent and my staff vet you pretty well until we release you because we are still responsible for you,” Almarode said. “It’s a big deal for us.”
Higgins said there are two types of people in jail: those who make mistakes and criminals. He said if you can do something for an individual who made a mistake, it can have a big impact on his or her life.
“At the end of the day, we want more people to be successful,” Higgins said.
“We don’t want them to come back here.”
One such success story is Sterling Long, who was arrested for conspiracy in Buena Vista. He was initially placed in a DOC-run prison and not qualified for Higgins’ work release program due to the length of his sentence. However, Long said Higgins made a promise to him that once his sentence got under two years, he would move Long to his facility and put him on work release.
“Once I went to prison, he really valued his word,” Long said. “When I got down to 19 months, I received a letter from Mr. King, who at the time was the lieutenant on work release. He sent me a letter that they were going to come and take me to jail.”
When Long received that letter, he realized that Higgins was a “man of his word.” While on work release, Long worked off his $5,200 fine with the help of Keith Holland, who owns both Holland’s Construction and Holland’s Three River Farm.
“Keith tries to keep you out as much as you can,” Long said. “We would work 16-hour days, but you would much rather be out working than sitting.”
After Long was released, he was able to use the money he made working to buy clothing and other basic things that a lot of people are “not fortunate enough to have when they get out.”
Higgins said the program was designed to help out with just that.
“Kicking a guy on the street is no good,” Higgins said. “What are they going to go back to? It becomes a burden until you find a job, and they still owe those fines, still owe child support when they get out.”
Rockbridge Regional Jail expects to generate a little over $70,000 from work release and home monitoring, which allows inmates who are approved for electric monitoring to work from home. The program also saves the taxpayer money by requiring inmates to cover the costs associated with both work programs.
“If someone is incarcerated and not on a program fee, the Commonwealth, we the taxpayer, is paying for their housing,” Almarode said.
Higgins and Almarode both agreed that the work release program benefits the community in the long run, as it allows inmates to continue working as they serve their time.
“That guy that gets 30 days in jail for a DUI, 30 days for child support, 30 days for petty larceny, those are the ones you want to keep their jobs,” Higgins said. “If not, you’re going to encourage them to get out and do something wrong again.”
Long was especially thankful for Higgins, whom he considers a friend.
“I would do anything for him,” Long said. “He wants to see [inmates] do good, and that’s a good thing. If there were more superintendents like him, I think there would be a lot better success rates.”