WINCHESTER — When he began his correctional career in Fairfax County in 1980, regional jail Superintendent James F. Whitley said jails were primarily for warehousing inmates, but there’s now a greater commitment to professionalism and rehabilitation.
“Expectations of jails were pretty low back then,” said Whitley, who has run the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Frederick County since 2012 and is retiring at year’s end. “Now, I see the jail as part of the community and part of that handoff of getting people back in society. Before, our responsibility ended at the door. Once we released them, that was it.”
Whitley, who turns 62 on Sunday, will formally announce his retirement plans at next month’s jail authority meeting. A husband and father of three sons, he attended high school in Prince George’s County in Maryland and college in Baltimore before becoming a Fairfax County deputy assigned to the jail. He ran the jail as a major from 2003 to 2008 before being promoted to chief deputy where he oversaw the courts.
The Fairfax jail houses about 40% more inmates than Northwestern, which had 612 inmates on Wednesday. Northwestern, located at 141 Fort Collier Road, serves Winchester as well as Clarke, Fauquier and Frederick counties, with those communities funding its $23.3 million annual budget. The jail has a staff of about 200 including about 150 correctional officers.
Whitley, who succeeded Bruce R. Conover as superintendent, said he got into corrections because he liked the idea of being part of a team. Whitley said he was able to improve morale at the regional facility by improving working conditions and getting staff raises, which had been frozen for about five years before he got there.
Andy Anderson, Northwestern’s program director, has worked at the jail since 2000. He said Conover was more hands-on and interested in daily operational details, while Whitley is comfortable delegating more authority to his command staff. Anderson also said Whitley is very approachable. “He’s got his door open and I can talk to him anytime I want about anything I want,” Anderson said.
Jail authority and Frederick County Board of Supervisors member Bob Wells also praised Whitley’s communication skills. Wells, who represents the Opequon District, joined the authority in 2015 and was appointed to the authority’s finance committee in January. He said Whitley works well with authority members and maximizes resources.
Major projects Whitey has overseen in the past few years include improving the jail’s HVAC system and upgrading security. The upgrade included switching from analog to digital surveillance cameras and installing two body scanners to prevent inmates from smuggling in drugs or weapons.
“For all these projects, he always worked very hard to get the best bang for the buck,” Wells said. “He’s a great guy to work with.”
Unlike bigger jails or prisons, violence involving serious injuries to inmates or staff is rare at Northwestern. Whitley said only a handful of inmate-on-staff attacks occur annually, but fights between inmates regularly occur, resulting in unplanned lockdowns. Four inmates have committed suicide at the jail since 2012.
The Winchester Star periodically receives letters from inmates saying they are abused or harassed by staff and complaining about the portions of food they receive or its quality. But Whitley said the food is adequate and staff who abuse inmates are disciplined. He said abuse is rare since he fired a handful of correctional officers in his first couple of years on the job for misconduct. Whitley, who noted many inmates are repeat offenders, said they get what they need, but it’s not always what they want.
“What I’m trying to do is reduce recidivism. And if I’m making life too comfortable for the inmates, they’re going to want to keep coming back,” Whitley said. “I want them to use their time here wisely and that’s what the correctional programming is for. If an inmate is motivated to improve their life, we can give them those opportunities. A lot of them don’t figure that out right away.”
Programs include the Offender Re-Entry Transition Program, which was expanded a year ago from 90 days to 120 days. The program includes a major drug treatment component. The national opiate epidemic spiked locally after Whitley took over and about 85% of inmates at Northwestern are incarcerated for drug offenses or drug-related crimes.
Besides addiction, mental health is a huge problem for inmates nationally and at Northwestern. About 25% of inmates at Northwestern are classified as mentally ill with about 15% of that group considered seriously mentally ill. Whitley said two of his employees are social workers with mental health training, and inmates also get online treatment, but resources are stretched thin.
Staff has also had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Whitley said five staff and nine inmates have tested positive, with none becoming seriously sick. The jail began planning for COVID-19 in late January, but it has been affected by the national shortage of personal protective equipment with few N-95 masks available. Officers at the jail wore cloth masks on Wednesday. Inmates are not allowed to wear masks unless they display coronavirus symptoms. Whitley said healthy inmates wearing masks would be a security risk.
Whitley praised his staff’s handling of the virus and their overall performance. He said it’s made his job a easier.
“It’s been challenging, but all the people I’ve worked with have had a huge impact on me,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate.”