Rockbridge Regional Jail

The Rockbridge Regional Jail. A federal grand jury has accused its former superintendent of violating the civil rights of inmates under his watch.

A federal grand jury in Roanoke on Thursday indicted the former superintendent of the Rockbridge Regional Jail on 15 additional charges.

John Marshall Higgins, 61, is accused of committing mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. The additional charges are part of a superseding indictment, which replaces one issued in August but still has the original charges included. Higgins now faces 21 charges.

Higgins was first accused of federal civil rights violations and falsifying documents to obstruct justice. The federal government alleges that Higgins failed to protect inmates from physical abuse and failed to provide them with medical treatment, resulting in physical injury.

The charge is based on a federal statute that makes it a crime for a person to deprive someone of their civil rights while acting under “color of law” — meaning in their duties as a police officer, judge, prison guard or other public official in the justice system.

The new charges allege that Higgins accepted prescription drugs for his own use from a company that provided medication to inmates at the jail. In exchange, Higgins agreed to continue to work with the pharmaceutical company, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The new indictment also says Higgins accepted valuable items from an inmate’s family in exchange for preferential treatment.

Higgins retired as superintendent in 2017 after the announcement of the investigation. He worked at the jail for more than 30 years.

Higgins has represented the Buffalo District on the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors since 2011, but announced he would not seek reelection in November.

The new indictment also includes the original charges against the former head nurse of the jail, Gary Andrew Hassler, 59. Hassler is accused of falsifying documents in order to obstruct a federal investigation. The indictment claims Hassler falsely reported on jail medical logs that an inmate refused to take his medication. He’s also accused of falsifying an incident report from March 2017.

Former Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias announced in March 2017 that he was opening an investigation into the regional jail. At the time, Billias said his office investigated an inmate’s complaint that revealed larger issues and a need for further investigation.

The jail investigation started with complaints that inmates in a part of the jail that housed sexual offenders were being assaulted by other inmates.

The investigation expanded to include the state police and federal authorities based in Roanoke. The case is based in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia and was set for trial on the original indictment in late July in Lynchburg.

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Alison Graham covers Roanoke County and Salem news. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

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