By Maggie Seybold
John Higgins, the longtime superintendent of the Rockbridge Regional Jail, has retired as State Police are expanding an investigation into a variety of allegations, including an alleged assault on an inmate Feb. 28.
The six-member Regional Jail Commission met Wednesday in a closed session and accepted Higgins’ request. The commissioners announced their decision when they returned to open session.
Higgins did not comment on the investigation, but did speak of his retirement in an interview Wednesday.
“I’ve enjoyed working at the jail for the past 35 years,” he said in a phone interview.
Higgins, who started working at the jail 35 years ago as a corrections officer, also serves as vice chairman of the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors.
“I didn’t know he was actually going to retire,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias said. “The fact that he has retired is an interesting element in this [investigation].”
Billias said the investigation began Feb. 28, after an inmate complained to jail supervisors that he had been forced to drink a “caustic substance.”
The commonwealth’s attorney said the sheriff’s office quickly learned about several instances of alleged assault involving multiple inmates in the sex offenders’ block.
“The sheriff’s office brought it to me after they realized the problem was bigger than just one incident,” he said.
Billias said he asked the State Police to lead the investigation because the sheriff’s office and the regional jail share the same building and their employees are close to each other.
“We thought that the State Police were in a better position to investigate because they can’t be accused of pushing anything under the rug to protect their buddy,” he said. “Sheriff Chris Blalock and Higgins are good friends.”
But Billias said the investigation quickly broadened and will now look at the jail as a whole.
“We thought we had one discrete issue and what we found is that there are really a lot of issues,” he said.
“When you’re beginning an investigation of this nature, you don’t want to only look at the inmate-on-inmate issues when we have information that might require us to look at broader issues,” he said.
Billias also said the investigation covers all levels of the jail and personnel.
“We are looking at how those incidences occurred, and why they occurred,” he said. “Whether jail personnel were acting appropriately, if jail officers knew, or should have known… that’s what we’re investigating.”
Billias said Capt. Derek Almarode is the interim superintendent. Almarode ran for sheriff in Augusta County in 2015, but lost.
Kelly Brotzman, a Washington and Lee University visiting professor in the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability, has done research on trends in a number of prisons. She says violence among inmates is nothing new.
“Inmate-on-inmate violence is extremely common and is often ignored by guards,” she said.
Court records show this isn’t the first time the Rockbridge jail has had problems with violence.
In 2013, inmate John Lonewolf filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that he was severely beaten by another inmate, Joel Copper. Lonewolf said the other inmate stomped on his chest, kicked him in the face and slammed his head into a concrete block.
Lonewolf said in the lawsuit that his left lung collapsed, his spleen had to be removed, and his intestines were damaged. He also said he had several broken bones and he suffered permanent damage to one of his eyes as a result of the beating. He said he was hospitalized for three months.
Copper was prosecuted and convicted of the Lonewolf assault.
The lawsuit named Higgins and Sgt. Steve Garrett as defendants. Lonewolf alleged that Garrett identified him as a sex offender when Lonewolf was checked into the jail in 2012. He said other inmates were present at the time.
Lonewolf also said in the lawsuit that Higgins knew that Copper had previously assaulted two other sex offenders, and didn’t take appropriate action to ensure the safety of the inmates.
In response to Lonewolf’s allegations, Garrett denied that he acted inappropriately when checking Lonewolf into the jail. Higgins also denied that he knew that Copper had attacked two other sex offenders.
Lonewolf was moved from the Rockbridge Regional Jail after the beating. He was released from Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County on March 7 of this year.
Lieutenant Kathy Painter, a corrections officer at the Rockbridge Regional Jail, said in an interview in January that tensions can be high among the inmates.
“They don’t get a break from each other at all. They’re in there 24 hours a day, and it creates a lot of animosity,” she said.
When the inmates don’t get along, Painter said at the time, there isn’t anywhere else to put them because the jail is overcrowded.
In January, Higgins said in an interview that the jail was built to house 54 inmates. For the past several years, he said, cells have been double-bunked to accommodate the growing number of inmates.
At the time of that interview, the jail was holding 140 inmates on an average day. Higgins said Wednesday that the jail currently holds approximately 96 inmates.
Billias said overcrowding certainly doesn’t help with inmate violence in jails.
“We judge a society on how they treat their worst people,” Billias said. “In Rockbridge County it should be better. You can’t treat people like that, you can’t treat sex offenders like that.”