Changes underway at Rockbridge County jail as investigation into beatings of sex offenders continues

By Rachel Hicks

Officials say some progress has been made in addressing conditions at the Rockbridge Regional Jail in the months since a high-profile investigation was launched into beatings of sex offenders.

The jail now offers a paid work release program, more medical care on a regular basis and a designated sex offender block that is used to segregate those inmates from the rest of the population, said Kathy Painter, the jail’s chief of security.

Interim jail superintendent Derek Almarode said his goal was to actively engage the inmates so they have purpose and are productive.

“The way we manage the day-to-day movement—all those things have been modified or changed,” he said.

Earlier this year, inmates assaulted two sex offenders—Matthew Kessinger, 24, and Robert Clark, 40—which led to a request for the FBI to investigate in May, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias.

The FBI and Virginia State Police failed to return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

This has happened before

“Sex offenders are not well received here,” Painter said.

The allegations under investigation by the FBI and Virginia State Police are similar to another incident that occurred in 2013. John Lonewolf, a sex offender, was severely beaten when he was placed in the general population. He subsequently filed a lawsuit against the jail, alleging his civil rights were violated by the indifference of guards when he was beaten by another inmate.

That year, Joel Copper was convicted of malicious wounding in connection with the beating of Lonewolf. Copper was sentenced to seven years in prison, according to court records.

During the jail admission process, Sgt. Steve Garrett loudly called Lonewolf a rapist and child molester, according to the lawsuit.

Copper overheard Garrett and attacked Lonewolf on his first night in the jail, the lawsuit said.

Lonewolf spent three months in the hospital recovering from a collapsed lung, and broken ribs and facial bones, as well as internal injuries, the lawsuit said.

In March, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou rejected a request to dismiss Lonewolf’s claims against Garrett.

“A reasonable jury could conclude that Sgt. Garrett recklessly disregarded a substantial risk of danger by shouting in an open area where trusties were working that Lonewolf was a sex offender and that he had raped a young girl,” Ballou wrote, referring to inmates who have earned special privileges.

Nicholas Hurston, Lonewolf’s attorney, said he is not ready to give up on the lawsuit.

“It is my intention to refile the case with additional claims and strengthen those which were originally filed … by Mr. Lonewolf,” Hurston said in an email.

What’s changed?

Almarode said the jail has implemented a work release program in hopes of focusing inmates’ attention away from conflicts with one another.

Painter said inmates on work release are paid minimum wage so they can make money  to make purchases at the jail’s commissary, or save for use after their release dates.

Lexington City Manager Noah Simon said work assignments for inmates are determined by their classifications, how long they’ve been in the jail and whether they have behaved while in custody.

“The county is utilizing some inmates at the landfill doing some projects there,” Simon said.

Other inmates need more supervision, and they are assigned tasks inside the jail, preparing or cleaning halls or bathrooms, Simon said.

Painter, the jail’s security officer, said Mediko, a healthcare company based in Richmond, plans to address the jail’s medical needs.

Funding will come from Lexington, Rockbridge County and the state. The contract will cover basic medical care for the jail’s inmates, Almarode said.

Painter said Mediko will staff the jail with five nurses who will provide round-the-clock care if needed. Currently, the jail has one nurse, who is not on call at night, she said.

What’s to come?

When the jail was first built, it was designed to house 40 inmates. Only one segregated cell was built because the designers did not expect much trouble from 40 people, Painter said.

As of November, there were over 100 inmates and only one segregated cell.

Almarode said jail officials hope to provide inmates with tablets loaded with educational classes. He said he hopes the tablets will be made available next spring.

The technology would be closed off to the outside world and monitored by the staff so inmates could not interact with anyone beyond the jail’s walls. Inmates would be able to earn their GEDs and take substance abuse and parenting classes, Almarode said.

“If they don’t have a high school education, they’ll have the opportunity to at least own that,” he said. “You name it, it’s on the system.”

If they complete the courses, inmates could earn points to download pre-authorized movies or music, Almarode said.

Billias declined to say when the investigation would end. He said it is not uncommon for investigations to drag on for years.

“These are all very time consuming things,” he said.

Published Dec. 13, 2017