By Stefanie Chiguluri
Rockbridge and Alleghany Counties are seeking proposals on renovating their jails or building one larger shared facility to reduce inmate overcrowding.
The proposal process will take between 12 and 18 months and help “meet the demands and requirements today and tomorrow,” said Lexington City Manager Jim Halasz in an email. “There are many areas that need to be addressed and the key will be: can the existing facility be expanded on the current site, or do we need a new site and facility?”
Jails and prisons across the country face overcrowding issues. Many states and cities have decriminalized marijuana, but judges still have felt public pressure to sentence people for even minor offenses over recent years according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Virginia has only 26 state prisons, which puts the burden on regional jails to take in those inmates.
The Lexington Jail was built in 1987 to hold 56 inmates. The Greenhouse Road facility now uses bunk beds to put two prisoners in cells built for one.
In recent years, the jail has housed around 120 inmates according to Superintendent Derek Almarode. In addition, the jail typically sends about 20-30 more inmates to other facilities due to a lack of space.
Repeat offenders make up about 85 percent of the population according to Chad Hamilton, chief of inmate services. Many of them are arrested for drug offenses, such as using and distributing methamphetamine.
One way jail officials hope to reduce overcrowding is to offer more training programs, such as teaching inmates carpentry and welding.
“It’s designed to inspire them to do something other than break the law,” Hamilton said. “We’re trying to use their talents.”
Once trained, the inmates are placed at job sites. Inmates can make $20 for a full day and up to $400 a month. Half of the earnings are applied to outstanding fines and the jail keeps the rest.
Hamilton said he has seen the difference it can make. For instance, he recalls one inmate who learned how to weld. He now teaches others to weld at a railyard in Roanoke.
The jail commission is also taking its programming a step further by providing certifications.
Inmates are separated by gender and participate in different training programs.
The jail has added training for women that can lead to industry certifications in fields such as food services. They also teach CPR and first-aid response to the men in the work release program.
Most of the new programming takes place on the jail campus. A new training classroom is under construction beside the jail.
“You have to have some hope when you work with individuals who are incarcerated,” Halasz said. “Some of them can get out and have a decent life because otherwise, it’s a little bit hopeless.”