Superintendent sees self as ‘mayor’ of Rockbridge jail

Warden Uses Inmates To Keep Jail Running

By Scott McClintock

John Higgins, superintendent of the Rockbridge Regional Jail, sees himself as the mayor of a little city.  That’s right, he sees his jail as a small city.

Rockbridge Regional jail houses inmates from Goshen, Glasgow, Natural Bridge, Buena Vista, Lexington City, and Rockbridge County in west-central Virginia.  With a population of about 100, the jail has plenty of work that must be done.  Inmates need to eat, do laundry, and have a clean place to live.  That’s where the city comes in.

The workers of Higgins’ city are the inmates.  And in this city, they are the ones who do the work.  With a staff of only 38 to manage the building, Higgins says he needs to put the prisoners to work to meet standards by the state.  Cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes, the inmates also stay busy.

Superintendent John Higgins takes hands’ on approach to running jail. (Photo by Scott McClintock)

His office, too, resembles that of his conceptual counterpart.  On a recent afternoon, he had to unplug his phone several times to make it stop ringing, but somehow or another it managed to do so anyway, much to his frustration.

The problems that cross Higgins’ desk are diverse.  The “mayor” could see anything from a staff member who needs to take a sick day to a prisoner who has checked out of the hospital without permission and needs to be tracked down.

Overseeing the jail, Higgins’ typical day is atypical.  “It’s always a different adventure every day, but you still have to do the basic things,” he said.

The basic things for Higgins range from ensuring prisoners have been deloused to tracking every razor blade that enters the jail.

So how did Higgins begin his career as mayor of Rockbridge Regional jail?  He took a pay cut.  As a factory worker in 1979 Higgins was making almost $25,000 a year.  But because he couldn’t stand to be cooped up inside a factory, Higgins signed on to work part time as a sheriff’s deputy for $9,800 per year.

Higgins says that he has always wanted to be a cop.  Working in his uncle’s store from ages 15 to 19, Higgins said he met several police officers and decided then that that was the job for him.

Even in high school Higgins wanted to be a police officer, but people told him he’d never be able to do it. “You’re too short to be a cop,” they’d tell him.  But Higgins said that just gave him the drive to want to do it more.

Higgins attended Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and pursued an associate degree in police science.  With less than six classes left to complete his degree, Higgins ran out of money.

He was working his way through school, and he says he just got tired.  He was delivering 350 newspapers every night just to put gasoline in his truck to get to class.  Soon Higgins says he wasn’t able to concentrate on his studies because he was worried about how he would earn his next dollar.

Higgins says he considered night classes so that he could finally get “that piece of paper,” but then life took a turn and he got married.  With a family, there was no time for school.

When away from work, Higgins used to enjoy hunting and fishing with his sons, Eric, 33, and Bryan, 26.  Now, though, he doesn’t go as often.  His adopted 8-year-old daughter, Brooklynn Renee Gardner, wants to be a veterinarian and doesn’t want animals to die.

Higgins has seen thousands of prisoners come and go over the years and believes that he could walk into most stores and gas stations in the county and find someone he knows, thanks to work-release programs.

When Brooklynn Renee asks Higgins, her “Pappy,” to point out the bad guys when they walk down the street, he says he tells her that they are all good guys. “Anyone who has paid their debt to society is a good guy,” he says.

Higgins talks with inmate. (Photo by Scott McClintock)

As Higgins walks through the jail, he speaks to everyone he sees, usually with a joke and a slap on the back.  Whether it’s an inmate or a staff member, Higgins seems to know everyone in his city.

Higgins not only knows his employees and inmates, but he also knows the families of his tenants. “Over the years you establish friends [with] the families of the inmates,” he said.

In November Higgins ran as an independent and was elected to the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, a job that pays $5,500 a year. He’ll continue to serve as superintendent but will abstain from jail-related issues considered by the board. He says he believes that people can get more done if they are not worried about the R or the D beside their names.

Though Higgins’ job is serious, he does not have a problem leaning back and having a good laugh.  A dollar bill won in a bet is tacked on a bookshelf in his office.

“I made a bet … eight years ago with who would win the election against Mr. Bruce Patterson—who was the clerk of court—and Bruce don’t like to pay up. I was in court and the judge was on the bench … and took a recess so that Bruce could give me his dollar,” Higgins said.  Then with a laugh, “I just stuck it up there so Bruce, if I ever see him, he knows it’s up there.”

While Higgins has a playful side, his job forces him to be serious at other times. Higgins’ face tightened and his voice hardened when he talked about some of the jail’s more dangerous prisoners, such as Kevin Howard, who pleaded guilty in October to shooting and wounding a camper at Arnolds Valley in 2007.

“These guys are the bad of the bad,” he said. “He’s not moved without two male officers. Bad. He’s monitored all the time. [So we] know what he’s doing.  He don’t care.”

As Higgins leaves the depths of his city and returns to his office along the outskirts the jail, you can hear three black keys the size of a man’s hand clanking on a ring on his belt.  He stops by the sheriff’s office in the jail to make sure all is well.

As he walks into his office, you can see him smile and wink to his secretary, toss his keys on his desk, and shut the door.  More so than most mayors, it is unlikely that Higgins would ever consider giving away the keys to his city.