Rockbridge County’s ‘Hidden City’

 

This story was reported by Annie Bonazzi, Drew Carlos, Frank Diez, Micah Fleet, Chelsea Gilman, Olivia Hampton, Catherine Salm and Libby Sutherland. It was written by Sutherland.

The Rockbridge Regional Jail sits tucked away just off Lee Highway, only about a mile away from Windfall Hill, Kappa Hill, and the Pole Houses, landmarks for Washington and Lee University students who pass by each day without giving it a second thought.

John Higgins, the superintendent of the jail, likens his position to the mayor of a little city. The corrections officers join him as city officials and the inmates are the citizens.

“My job is to oversee this little world,” Higgins says, “to make sure that taxpayers’ money is spent correctly and sufficiently.”

Higgins describes the jail as a place where “we have to provide everything that an individual could receive out of the jail, in jail.” He says this includes laundry, meals, GED classes, medical care, mental health, religious services, work programs and visitation with family.

The jail was originally built to hold 56 individuals, but Higgins says that there are currently about 115 inmates, who have committed, or are accused of committing, crimes in Rockbridge County, Lexington, Glasgow, Goshen and Buena Vista.

People held in the jail are usually serving short sentences of up to a year for minor crimes, or they are awaiting trial on more serious charges. Sometimes, offenders convicted of committing felonies, such as murder, are kept at the jail until a place can be found for them in a state prison.

The mix of offenders makes jails tough places for corrections officers, who need “special skills to talk to inmates” and work in a place where “they’re going to be locked up” while they do their jobs, Higgins says.

“Over the last 10 years, I’ve probably had seven or eight guys and ladies that’s retired,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of young officers right now.”

Higgins and his staff often must deal with people who have committed, or been accused of committing unthinkable crimes—people whom others might deem as part of the underbelly of society—but he says it is not his job to criticize anyone.

“When someone comes in this jail, I’m not here to judge them; my staff is not here to judge them,” he says. “We are here to do our job by incarcerating them, making sure that we go by all our state standards, making sure that they’re protected, making sure that they’re fed.”

Bible study at the jail.

Higgins is every bit the friendly mayor he claims, acknowledging inmates and officers with the same cheerful greeting. He says he hopes to be remembered for two things:

“One, having great staff. And secondly, treating all inmates fair.”

Have a little faith

“God, give me a miracle,” said 48-year-old Ruth Ann Hinkle.

Hinkle is an inmate at the Rockbridge County jail who is serving a seven-month sentence for obtaining money under false pretense.

Every Wednesday, Jaci Lauck, 83, a resident of Rockbridge County, goes to the jail to hold Bible study for the female inmates. And every Wednesday, Lauck says she is met with a new challenge or a familiar face, like Hinkle.

In the 20-minute sessions is where Lauck forms her relationships.

“Only God can change their heart so you do what you can,” she said. “They need to know that I love them as much as a human love can be known. But God’s love is greater.”

Lauck has been going to the jail on and off for 13½ years. She says she and a friend started teaching there because “we just had a heart for people that had a terrible start for life.”

The key to being accepted by the women inmates is to be “totally nonjudgmental,” she says.

She uses the words of the Bible to help the women deal with their situations. She said that some tell her what they are in for, and others do not.

But Lauck said, “you can’t open the Bible without seeing that people lead themselves into their own destruction.”

Whether the women inmates get personal or not, she says she knows that just by reading the scriptures they can identify with the messages in the Bible.

“I’ve hated myself for what I’ve done,” said Hinkle, “and you know I know I’m not that type of person, but I got weak. And the devil seen where to step in at.”

Lauck became a born-again Christian in her mid-40s when a friend showed her there was more to the Bible than the Lord’s Prayer.

She says she “fell” for the “Word of the Lord,” has lived by it and considers herself one of its teachers.

“We see who God is in the Bible,” Lauck said. “We see ourselves in the Bible and we are confronted with what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with me. To me, everything became so plain and plus, the wonderful part of it is, I found out God is so personal, he is so concerned.”

She tries to help the women at the jail understand that God is on their side.

“We are all messes when we come to him,” she recently told a group of women. “He loves us anyway. He loves us too much to leave us in our messes.”

There is a downside for Lauck: She loses touch with the women after they leave, or worse, they come back to the jail.

“It’s just the joy, plus the heaviness that knowing that my responsibility toward them is sort of ended when they get out,” she said, adding that she wonders, “what ever happened to that person that I loved?”

Lauck says she tells the women when they leave jail that they need to find a church. She tells them to come to her church, Life Chapel, which is near the Rockbridge County High School.

They rarely do.

But she keeps going back to the jail. And she says she will continue until her body tells her to stop.

“There is something,” she said, “about sharing your faith that is, that keeps you alive in the Lord.”

A little respect goes a long way

Major Candace Bane, one of Higgins’s top corrections officers, has worked at the jail for 25 years and agrees with him that the officers’ job is not to judge the inmates.

“I think the inmates just want to be heard,” she said. “A lot of times I do sympathize with them. I do feel that these are people.”

Bane said many of the inmates come from a part of society that is often forgotten. “I don’t know how to put this without sounding disrespectful, but [many] inmates don’t have the good upbringing, don’t have the two parents, don’t have a loving home.”

She also said she’s seen multiple generations of certain families come through the jail’s doors.

“I’ve been here long enough now to see the moms and dads … If they had children and they’ve lived that life and become accustomed to what they see, I see the kids in jail now,” Bane said. “It just seems kind of unfair that the community can’t do something to help.”

Justin Kelly Hartless, 26, of Buena Vista, says he knows a lot of the inmates.

“Ninety percent of the people I already know,” he said. “I went to school with them or was raised around them, or we hung out through the streets or something … We all know each other around here.”

Some inmates know each other too well—and have grudges that have festered for years between and among families and friends. There are people who have “snitched” on each other to the police. But there also are more trivial spats.

“They get in an argument over food,” Higgins said. “They get in an argument over a towel. Something simple and then we have to keep them separated for awhile to diffuse the situation.”

He says the jail maintains an “enemy list” to keep track of conflicts between inmates.

In October 2012, inmate John E. Lonewolf, who was accused of selling morphine pills to a police informant, was severely beaten, stomped in the head and chest by another inmate, Joel Copper. Lonewolf alleged in a civil rights complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke that a sergeant, in the presence of other inmates, yelled at Lonewolf because he was a sex offender when he was booked into the jail. Later that day, Lonewolf says, he was attacked. Copper was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for the assault. In November, a federal judge dismissed Copper and the jail as defendants. But the case against jail personnel is on hold until Lonewolf complies with a payment schedule to cover the $350 fee for filing a lawsuit.

In his complaint, Lonewolf blamed his assault partly on crowding in the jail, which was built to house 56 inmates but averages twice as many. The population is usually about 115, but it has jumped to as high as 130, Higgins says.

Jacquelyn Bridgett Clark, 35, of Buena Vista, who is serving a nine-month sentence for breaking and entering, says when the jail gets crowded, some inmates sleep on mattresses on the floors. This is especially true for the women because there is less cell space put aside for them.

“It’s been seven women in a pod, and it’s only equipped for four,” she said. “We have one shower and two commodes. It’s interesting.”

Higgins says 31 corrections officers run the jail, which operates on a budget of nearly $3 million a year with funding primarily from Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista.

‘Everyone in my family has been addicted to something’

The men and women in the jail are kept apart. Because the men far outnumber the women, the female inmates have few, if any, opportunities for drug and alcohol counseling, work release or the chance to serve as jail trustees, inmates who work in the kitchen and laundry, and as janitors.

Major Bane said there aren’t programs for women because there aren’t enough female inmates to sustain them.

Clark, a mother of two, says she has suffered from substance abuse that stemmed from an illness. She says she began buying drugs off the street after her prescription had run out.

“I’ve had 56 kidney stones and I’ve had 17 surgeries,” she said. “I got addicted to my pain medication.”

After she’s released, Clark says, she plans to begin drug counseling.

Roseanna Doyle, a 30-year-old from Fairfield, is serving a four-month sentence for possession of methamphetamines and other drugs.

She blames her drug addiction on a troubled childhood. “Everyone in my family has been addicted to something at some point,” she says.

Doyle says she also plans to attend drug-counseling classes once she is released.

Bane says female inmates are often the toughest to deal with. “I think it’s a little harder to gain the respect of the females,” she said. “The males just seem to go right along with what you say.”

Nurse Jessica Watts says that working at the jail is different every day. Some days are calm, while others aren’t.

“Some days you can be called back because somebody held their pills in their mouth for two weeks and took them all at one time and overdosed,” she said, “or somebody has decided to beat somebody up in visitation against the wall and they’re [corrections officers] spraying pepper spray everywhere and you’ve got people with their eyeballs burning.”

Watts says some inmates arrive at the jail in poor health because they didn’t take time to go to a doctor when they were free, but she doesn’t believe it’s because they couldn’t afford it.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I don’t really care about my medical problems on the street,’ because a lot of them are alcoholics and drug addicts,” she said. “And then they come in here and they kind of use the medical problems as a crutch to get different things.”

The medical ailments range from serious to questionable, Watts says.

“The biggest one we hear is back problems because they all want a bottom bunk and they don’t want to go on the top, and they all want two mattresses,” she said. “And 90 percent of them come in and tell us they’re allergic to fish because they don’t want to eat fish. They want chicken patties instead.”

Family ties

Every day but Monday, the jail opens its doors to allow visitors for inmates. Officers say visitation makes all the difference.

“[Inmates] that do have the support [of family] seem to do better in jail. They seem to be a better inmate,” said Bane. “[Inmates] that have no family, no friends, no support they just tend to rebel a little more … They don’t want to follow the rules.”

The corrections officers consider visitation a privilege and will revoke it from an inmate as a disciplinary measure.

Doyle, the Fairfield woman arrested on methamphetamine charges, said that the visitation rooms create a strange experience.

“You’re behind a sheet of glass and talking through a phone, like a payphone,” she said.

Clark, the Buena Vista woman serving time for probation violations, said the cramped rooms make it difficult to have a pleasant visit, especially with children.

“[Privacy] is [a problem],” Clark said, “especially when you get people in there who aren’t respectful and yell because there isn’t very much in there between the other visitation room.”

Doyle says visitation has its pluses and minuses.

“I have something to look forward to . . . and that makes me happy,” she said. “But not being able to hug [my mom], or give her a kiss or anything, that’s the hardest part of all. Because you long for that physical closeness.”

Clark said her eight-year-old son has been hit the hardest by her nine-month sentence.

“It’s rough,” she said. “My son wants to know why he can’t touch me and why [the officers] won’t allow me to come out and see him.”

Major Bane said it is common for children to struggle when visiting parents.

“I’ve seen kids that just can’t understand why they can’t touch mom or dad and are crying or are trying to kiss through the glass,” she said, “and it’ll break your heart, there’s no doubt about it.”

Clark said it was not an easy decision for her to let her son and daughter visit.

“I always swore I would never let my kids come and see me in jail,” she said, “But it’s hard not to be able to see your kids and only be able to talk to them on the phone.”

Doyle said she decided against allowing her children to visit her.

“I don’t want them to have that impression that just because mommy came in here that it’s okay.”

Back to school

Four years ago, Christopher Bowring decided that he wanted to do something to help his community. Bowring, an earth science teacher at Rockbridge County High School and a Washington and Lee graduate, volunteers on Monday nights to prepare inmates for the GED test.

“They take a math test or an English test or a science or writing or reading and then I grade it right there,” he said. “Eventually, when I feel as though they’ve reached a point of proficiency, I recommend the inmate check in to a GED center and take the test.”

Bowring is not officially associated with the GED—the General Equivalency Diploma—program. He says his classes are not meant to supply inmates with the certificate but rather to prepare them to take the test outside of the jail.

“They used to be able to give them the test in the jail and that system has changed and now they’re expected to come to a place like this [the high school] and sign up usually in our library at some date in the future,” he said.

Bowring acknowledges that many of the inmates are not highly educated. But he says this is often not due to learning disabilities, but rather because they were neglected by their teachers.

“They literally were pushed aside and nobody spent the one-on-one time with them,” he said. “Once that happens, miracles happen.”

Bowring believes that his classes have changed the lives of some inmates.

“A couple of them have gone on to college and to the best of my knowledge, the ones that I’ve worked with have not come back to jail,” he said.

Bowring say 25 to 30 inmates have completed his program.

The education levels of the inmates that Bowring sees vary greatly and the GED is not always the ultimate goal. He says he once taught a male inmate who did not know the alphabet.

“He was 33, he was a carpenter, he could read a ruler, but he could not write his name and he wanted very much to write his sister a letter. But he didn’t know how to,” Bowring said. “So, I started with flashcards … One day after I’d been working with him for a few weeks, one of the other inmates had told me that the other inmates had gotten together and made cards and held them up to the bars as he walked by to see if he could learn the words.”

Bowring said the inmate began practicing with books such as “The Cat in the Hat” and the Berenstain Bears series.

“It wasn’t to get a GED, it was to get him to learn how to write,” he said. “So we finally got him to and he stood up in front of several of the inmates in the jail and he read The Cat in the Hat, which was pretty cool.”

Bowring says that his sessions are often more than simply practicing writing, science or math.

“I think a fair amount of my time is just talking to them,” he said. “But I do listen to them and some of their stories are really heartbreaking.”

Bowring says giving inmates his time is what matters.

“It’s not what they’ve learned, that’s not the point,” he said. “It’s that they were in a situation where somebody could invest some time. That’s all.”

Back to work

For some inmates, staying in a cell all day isn’t the only option to make the time go by. Work release and home electronic monitoring are available to some inmates—typically the men—who have to serve 12 months or less.

“It’s an agreement with their employer because when they’re out of the jail, their employer is responsible for all their actions while they’re at work,” says Officer Melinda Holcomb, who oversees both programs. “We have people who go to work daily.”

Holcomb says there are only seven people on work release. She says they are tightly monitored, allowed only enough time to leave the facility and to return.

“They can’t stop at the store or anything,” she said. “Of course they have to stop for gas, but we have to approve that ahead of time.”

Holcomb says the businesses that participate are local, such as Lee Hi Travel Plaza and Goad’s Body Shop. The businesses must be licensed and carry workers’ compensation to be eligible.

Not all inmates are suitable for the programs: One woman left work and didn’t return to the jail; and a man accessed the Internet on a phone he wasn’t supposed to have.

“They’re taken off work release at that moment,” Holcomb said. “Then they get a charge and have to go in front of the judge.”

Home electronic monitoring is stricter than work release, she says.

“You cannot go anywhere but an appointment, if you have it approved first,” Holcomb said. “You can’t have family members to your home. So if you have children or a husband, they can’t have friends over.”

If an inmate is approved for electronic monitoring, Holcomb goes to his or her home to set it up. The inmate pays $84 a week, and is subject to random drug tests.

An inmate wears an ankle bracelet and a portable tracking unit that stays on a charger, which allows Holcomb to use a computer to monitor the person’s movements.

Holcomb says the rules are simple. “We tell them like this: If you can’t do it sitting in our jail, then you cannot do it at your home,” she said. “Sometimes, I think it might be better [for some of them] just to come to jail.”

Home away from home

Charles Arnold, 49, of Buena Vista, who was incarcerated on a probation violation, says many inmates don’t know how good they’ve got it in the Rockbridge jail.

“This place is, for me, it’s like Mayberry,” he said, referring to the fictitious small town on the “Andy Griffith Show” that ran on television in the 1960s. “I heard a lot of people complaining about this place because they ain’t ever been nowhere else.”

But Clark says it’s still not easy to do time.

“It’s very hard, but it’s the punishment, you know,” she said. “Everyone is in here for different reasons. [It] don’t make us any better than the other person, but it’s very hard to get along in here.”

Doyle says inmates who fail to learn from the experience are doomed to be repeat offenders.

“You got to learn from this experience and grow from it,” she said. “[If] you … don’t take anything out of it except, oh, jail is just three hots and a cot, then you’re going to come back to jail.”

But Doyle says she knows that’s easy to say, especially for offenders battling drug addictions.

“I can’t guarantee that I’ll stay clean. I can’t guarantee it for myself because I don’t want to let myself down,” she said.

“It’s hard to resist a drug that you’re addicted to,” Doyle said, “so I don’t know what the chances are.”

Published Dec. 14, 2013