State prison closings worsen overcrowding at Rockbridge Regional Jail

By Maya Lora

Overcrowding at the Rockbridge Regional Jail has gotten worse. Inmates serving sentences that used to send them to state prisons are staying longer as the state closes prisons. The jail has had to move prisoners to surrounding facilities, which has exacerbated overcrowding within those jails.

The Rockbridge Regional Jail population spiked mid-summer. It now has 150 inmates, 27 of whom have been “farmed out” to other facilities.

“I think this is a problem throughout the commonwealth and I certainly think it is impacting local facilities and regional jail operations,” county jail Superintendent Derek Almarode said.

Virginia prisons are not taking in enough sentenced prisoners, he said, leaving regional jails with inmates beyond the usual pre-trial and post-trial time frames.

“Our neighboring facilities are seeing the same impact as we are, unfortunately,” Almarode said.

For example, Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville currently hosts 688 inmates with a maximum capacity of 700. Based on the number of officers it has on staff, the jail should have only 281 inmates.

Superintendent James Davis, at that facility, said the number of drug-related arrests in the area has been a problem in addition to the inmates it has to hold for surrounding facilities, including the Rockbridge Regional Jail.

The Rockbridge jail’s Almarode said the state knew the burden it would be placing on regional facilities when it decided to close state prisons.

“Regional jails were never really designed to carry out sentencings,” Almarode said.

He said that the state Director of Parole and Probation maintains that regional jails will now be expected to hold inmates with sentences of up to five years. Chief of Security for the jail Lt. Kathy Painter said the longest an inmate has stayed at the jail is four years.

Possible jail expansion

The county jail, on Greenhouse Road near Rockbridge County High School, opened in 1988 to accommodate 56 inmates. After the jail was double bunked, capacity rose to 111. Plans to expand the jail were drawn up in 2008 but no action was taken.

Almarode would like to revisit that option as soon as possible. Since the jail is funded primarily by local taxpayers, he emphasized the importance of fiscal responsibility when looking into options. The county Director of Fiscal Services Steve Bolster said that for fiscal year 2019,
Rockbridge County is projected to spend just under $1.5 million on the jail. Buena Vista is projected to spend about $420,000 and Lexington is projected to spend about $96,000. Final costs will be calculated in June.

The Rockbridge Regional Jail is struggling to care for its 150 current inmates when its capacity is only 111. Photo by Maya Lora.

Costs are hard to predict when local officials are setting their annual budgets. Almarode said that this year’s original budget projected that the jail would have to pay for 13 inmates to be hosted at other facilities, but then more than double that number had to be moved out of the jail.

Almarode added that the jail has already taken measures to deal with the growing population, such as contracting out inmates, adding bed spaces within the jail and aiming to keep 30 percent of the jail population working within the jail so they do not have to be observed by staff 24 hours a day.

Almarode said that expansion could help the facility address a problem that is growing to be unmanageable, but that all options should be on the table.

“We may be at a point in our facility, in our infrastructure, that we can’t handle the influx of folks that are coming to us,” Almarode said. “We don’t have any control of who comes in our building and who doesn’t.”

Seeking state aid

Many of the inmates are sent to the jail more than once; 67 of those now in the county jail and all 27 inmates in other facilities were arrested on probation violations.

Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter said there is an “increasing reliance on regional jails” which has brought up expenditures for the jail, especially in healthcare costs.

The Rockbridge Regional Jail Commission, a seven-person board of officials and citizens overseeing the jail, may seek action from the Virginia General Assembly to lessen the burden on the Rockbridge Regional Jail through additional funding. Suter said those plans are still in the early stages and he has no idea what, if anything, would be asked of the state legislature. But he added he would want lobbying for those funds done as soon as possible.

The state pays county facilities to hold inmates serving state sentences locally through a reimbursement program. The state currently reimburses the jail $12 per diem for every inmate sentenced for 12 months or longer and $4 per diem for prisoners sentences for less than 12 months. Almarode said that since the regional jail is holding inmates for longer periods of time than before, he would support asking the state to pay extra for those inmates in order to better offset the extra costs incurred by the jail.

Two female inmates at the Rockbridge Regional Jail. Photo by Maya Lora.

“It is the commonwealth’s responsibility to assist and care for them financially,” Almarode said of prisoners under state sentences.

Painter said that since the jail will not be fully staffed until mid-March 2019, taking care of so many prisoners has presented major issues, especially in the female block. There are about 30 women in a space built for 16.

“You know, tensions grow because they can’t get away from one another,” Painter said. “It’s just too crowded.”

Female cells that were built to hold two inmates have been double bunked to fit up to 10. Women have to sleep on the floor as they await sentencing.

Painter said those conditions affect the quality of life for the prisoners “a great deal.” She added that rising tensions within the jail this year have led to several inmate injuries that have required hospitalization.

The effects of overcrowding

The jail has struggled with inmate injuries in the past.

In August, former jail Superintendent John Higgins was indicted in federal District Court on four counts of depriving inmates under his care of their Constitutional rights. The charges came after the state looked into allegations of several instances of assault against inmates in the sex offenders’ block under Higgins’s watch.

Former head nurse Gary Hassler was also indicted on charges of falsifying incident reports and obstructing a federal investigation.

Because of the overcrowding, the jail currently has only one segregation cell to hold inmates if a fight erupts and parties need to be separated.

Higgins, the elected representative of the Buffalo district on the county Board of Supervisors, retired as jail superintendent in March 2017 while under state investigation. The trial on these charges is scheduled for April.

Painter said that overcrowding also takes a toll on jail employees.

“[There’s] more laundry to wash, more meals to prepare, longer to cleanup, more visitors, more attorney visits,” Painter said.

Painter said current numbers are unsustainable and supports expansion.

“The county just cannot continue to have the inmate population in this facility as it is and think that it’s going to continue to work,” Painter said.

Painter said that the jail will continue to house all prisoners it is responsible for until that expansion happens.

“We will take as many as they bring to us,” Painter said. “We have no choice.”