Photo of jail front sign
Rockbridge Regional Jail routinely holds double its capacity of inmates, averaging 116 inmates in a facility built to hold 55. Photo by Fraley Williams.

By Fraley Williams

Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County officials have ditched plans to work with neighboring counties to build a bigger regional jail, citing the hefty price tag.

Spencer Suter, Rockbridge County administrator, said the original proposal was for Rockbridge, Alleghany and Bath Counties to possibly build one larger shared facility.

“Once numbers came back, Alleghany and Bath Counties looked at it and determined that was not something that was going to be feasible,” Suter said. “We also looked at it and said ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money’ and so we went in another direction.”

Now, Suter said it appears to be more cost effective for Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista to renovate the existing Rockbridge Regional Jail.

Pressure is growing to do something to ease overcrowding at the local jail, which routinely holds double its capacity of inmates. The women’s cell block is the worst: Cells meant for one now house up to four women, according to Derek Almarode, jail superintendent. The jail houses about 116 inmates, Almarode said, more than double its capacity of 55.

“We have dormitory beds as well, meaning they’re not in cells,” Almarode said. “[The inmates] kind of live in this big area that’s adjacent to a bathroom.”

“We have dormitory beds as well, meaning they’re not in cells,” Almarode said. “[The inmates] kind of live in this big area that’s adjacent to a bathroom.”

Overcrowding is exacerbated by an increase in short-stay inmates, such as those charged with DUIs, according to Almarode.

In some cases, Rockbridge Regional Jail sends inmates to neighboring facilities to ease overcrowding.

But that’s not a cost-effective or long-term solution, Almarode said. The three localities want to proceed with renovating or building a new facility.

Moseley Architects was hired to create the plan, which assesses what the new jail needs to serve a growing population of inmates, Suter said.

Doug Harwood, founder of The Rockbridge Advocate, said that the lack of progress is not surprising. “The jail has been in trouble for some time,” he said, noting a similar plan about 10 years ago that would’ve doubled the inmate capacity.

One reason for jail overcrowding is recidivism, or repeat offenders who get arrested again and again, Almarode said.

Inmates offered training programs

To combat this problem, inmates at Rockbridge Regional Jail can participate in training programs in agriculture, cooking, welding, among other skills.

Rockbridge Regional Jail created training programs for inmates to help combat recidivism. Photo by Ned Newton.

Many Virginia inmates are also being held without bail or are awaiting trial, which can contribute to overcrowding.

Virginia is one of the only states “with no time limit on how long a person can be jailed without being indicted… and there’s no limit on how many times a case can be delayed,” according to the Associated Press.

Local jails also house twice as many people awaiting trials than in the entire federal prison system, according to the ACLU. That’s almost half a million people including many who can’t afford to pay bail.

Additionally, Virginia has only 26 state prisons, forcing many regional jails to take in inmates who were supposed to serve longer sentences at state facilities. Suter said that the local jail has many inmates who have been sentenced to one year or more.

“For a while there, the state was unable to take those inmates which created a pretty significant problem in regional jails,” Suter said. “The regional jails are holding state responsible inmates as well as the locally responsible inmates with lesser sentences, and that created an overcrowding problem.”



The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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