Inside The Walls

Besides clean drinking water, Mark Riggsby helps produce inmates with critical skills for a productive career when their debt to society is paid.
Inside The Walls
Beyond teaching, Riggsby’s duties include basic plant operations, maintenance and housekeeping tasks.

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Amid noise and nonstop radio traffic, Mark Riggsby quietly tutors an inmate on the finer points of water testing and treatment.
Such mentoring is part of Riggsby’s mission as chief operator of the water plant at Denmar Correctional Center in Hillsboro, W.Va. His ultimate aim is to provide a career path for those paying their debt to society.

Since he joined the Denmar facility in 2000, Riggsby has helped inmates get their Class I and Class II water and wastewater operator licenses and go on to productive careers in the water industry. Those efforts, and his commitment to maintain a constant flow of clean water at the 20-year-old prison, earned him the 2013 Perkins Boynton Award (named for the state’s first certified public water service operator) from the West Virginia section AWWA.

Unexpected award

“I have no idea why I won the award,” says Riggsby, 54. “I just come to work every day and do what I do. When we went to the dinner I thought we were going for classes. Nobody said anything until I got called up on stage. It really stunned me.”

The reality is that Riggsby was chosen for exemplary ability as an operator, exceptional responsibility and a desire to increase his knowledge of water treatment. While the plant he operates is small (serving fewer than 1,000 customers), his impact has been big. He has mentored numerous convicted felons who have gone on to gainful employment in water and wastewater operations nationwide.

Although born in West Virginia, Riggsby, whose father was in the Air Force, spent most of his time in Arizona and Nevada, and in Zweibrucken, Germany, where he attended high school and excelled in wrestling, football and baseball.

He graduated from Rancho High School in Las Vegas, joined the Air Force and was stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for four years. After being honorably discharged, he went to New York working for Louisiana Chemical dismantling fertilizer plants, then did construction work, running bulldozers and backhoes, which he continued to do when he came to West Virginia in 1986.

He did maintenance work at a tannery, was a mechanic for BFGoodrich, did auto mechanics for a Toyota dealership, and did construction and building repair at other area businesses. For four years, he worked as a jack-of-all-trades for Stephen Coonts, the best-selling author of Flight of the Intruder and Minotaur, handling building maintenance, backhoe work and other tasks on Coonts’ 1,780-acre Deer Creek Farm in Pocahontas County.

When Coonts started to close up the farm, Riggsby took a maintenance and construction job in Arbovale, but saw no future in it. When he learned of an opening at Denmar, he went to White Sulphur Springs and took the state test for a building maintenance mechanic position there.

“I needed a steady job with good benefits and retirement,” he recalls. “I had been working construction and other jobs for many years and I wanted something permanent where I could build a good career. At the time, I didn’t realize that I’d end up running the water plant.”

Bumpy start

Riggsby joined Denmar in July 2000. At first he was assigned to the maintenance department. Then he met Curtis Pyles, who was the chief water plant operator “and a great teacher.”

Intimidated by how complex the water plant seemed, Riggsby asked Sylvia Haney, associate warden, if he could stay in maintenance, claiming he was “never that great in school” and was worried he couldn’t handle the responsibilities. Haney’s response: “You were hired for the water plant and that’s where you’re going.”

On top of that, Pyles was getting ready to retire, so Riggsby needed to learn the job pronto. So, somewhat reluctantly, he learned the business, and two years later earned his operator’s licenses for water and wastewater. At the time, Denmar had an inmate who had been incarcerated 19 years and had failed the operator’s test once.

“He could relate to me,” says Riggsby, who became chief operator in 2004. “So I brought all my notes back from the classes I took, and I helped him pass the test, which wasn’t easy, since West Virginia has one of the toughest testing processes around.”

From that point on, Riggsby, who has Class II water and Class I wastewater licenses, has focused on building his own expertise and developing inmates’ skills. Sometimes that can be a challenge. For example, the Division of Corrections (DOC) requires all employees to go through the DOC Academy, a six-week offsite program that covers every aspect of the correctional system, including self-defense. In addition, everyone must take 40 hours of classroom training every year in administrative, human resource and legal issues.

Innovation matters

Riggsby also needs 24 hours every two years in water and wastewater classes to keep his licenses up — courses held in nearby Ripley or other locations around the state. Those requirements raised a potential stumbling block: How could a prisoner take classes outside of Denmar for several days at a time? That’s where Riggsby’s ingenuity and determination kicked in.

“I obtained a waiver from the state in 2008 allowing me to teach the class,” he says. “I teach them what I know and work from prepared manuals, and they get hands-on experience by helping me run our water plant. Then I give them a certificate saying they have so many hours, and I take them to the test and bring them back once they’re finished.”

That process has worked great, according to Riggsby. Denmar’s success stories include:

An inmate who got his Class II license in 2013 and moved back to New Mexico in search of a water plant operator’s job

One who works at a water plant at the Snowshoe Mountain (W.Va.) ski resort area

One who works at a plant in Fort Gay in Wayne County, W.Va.

“Yeah, a couple of guys who left as Class I operators lapsed back into drugs and crime,” Riggsby acknowledges. “But the other fellows have been real diligent about studying and learning how the plant works. I’m proud that they left here with something they can use on the outside.”

Careers, not jobs

Warden Mark Williamson, who has headed the Denmar Correctional Center since 1998, sees Riggsby as a major asset: “Mark’s mentoring helps the inmates go out and make a career for themselves, rather than the typical path of working at a car wash or flipping burgers. He gives them the tools to succeed in jobs in water systems throughout the country because there’s always a need for good operators.”

Beyond his mentoring, Riggsby clearly qualifies as a good operator — no mean feat considering that the water plant dates back to the 1950s. Denmar was built in 1917 as the state tuberculosis hospital; in 1957 it was converted to a state hospital for the chronically ill. It closed in 1990 and was then converted to a prison in 1993. A building project completed in 2000 included an industries/vocational building. The water plant pumps between 70,000 to 80,000 gpd, and uses a fairly simple system of pumps and conventional gravity-fed, multimedia (anthracite, sand, garnet and gravel) filters.

Riggsby and Doshia Webb, who joined Denmar three years ago as a maintenance supervisor and now works as his assistant, pump water from the Greenbrier River into a mix chamber. From there, it goes into a sediment basin where they add a polyaluminum chloride coagulant, DelPAC 2020 (USALCO).

Once chlorinated, the water is gravity fed over the filters and through the media. It is emptied into another clearwell and then pumped up to two tanks on top of a nearby hill. Each week, Riggsby and Webb do two manual backwashes with rakes, pushing the water through the filters and removing debris.

The water they produce for Denmar’s 216 male inmates, 87 staff and 20 female federal prisoners (housed in a separate leased facility) meets state and federal requirements for lead and copper, VOCs, TOC, nitrates and other parameters. It has 0.02 NTU turbidity, when 0.3 NTU is the exceedance level mandated by the U.S. EPA.

The plant has had no violations since Riggsby has been chief operator, nor have there been any water-borne disease issues like those that have affected correctional centers in California, Florida and New York, where inmates have sued under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Riggsby, Webb and an inmate also handle wastewater treatment. That includes quarterly testing for BOD, fecal coliform and solids, chlorinating and dechlorinating, and operating a lagoon that has a 50,000 gpd capacity. They keep the lagoon clean; Riggsby persistently sprays an herbicide to address a persistent duckweed problem the lagoon encountered in 2013.

‘Super instructor’ Webb, who has a master’s degree in aquatic biology from Marshall University and a Class II water license, calls Riggsby “a super guy to work with” and praises his knowledge and conscientiousness. She also credits his ability to teach water management as big help to her and to the inmates he mentors.

“Mark wants to make sure you learn, not just memorize a bunch of facts,” says Webb, who was a magistrate and a game warden earlier in her career. “He’s a super instructor, very patient and concerned that you really understand the material. That’s important, since operating a water plant isn’t as easy as people think. When you get your certification, it’s not just for this little plant. It may be for a big plant where you treat for certain chemicals or take certain chemicals out of the water. We’re lucky we don’t have to do that because the Greenbrier River is pretty clean.”

More impressive is that Riggsby works under challenging conditions. Soon after he arrives at 8 a.m., he contacts Control and asks them to send down the inmate who is helping him. Security does that and pats the inmate down. Inmates are rigorously screened for what the warden calls “aptitude and attitude” to make sure they’re interested in working at the water plant and can master the math, science and mechanical skills.

Riggsby then drives the inmate over to the water plant. They get it up and running and log data into the computer. Every 15 minutes they record finished water turbidity. They also perform a battery of tests — chlorine (pre and post), iron, pH (raw, finished and settled) and alkalinity (raw and finished) — at specific times throughout the day.

Early in his shift, Riggsby goes up on the hill and checks the water tanks, then heads over to the wastewater lagoon. In between tests, he tries to get in some teaching from the manuals or do some hands-on work with the filters or pumps. He leaves the plant at 3:50 so he can take the inmate back up to the prison for head count by 4:30.

A different environment

“Working for the prison is different,” Riggsby says. “We have to account for every little thing. For example, when I get chemicals in, I have to enter them into a logbook. And if I move the chemicals from the cabinet in the filter room, I have to record that. Every movement is documented, per American Correctional Association standards. We need to make sure materials are accounted for from one location to another at all times.”

It’s the mentoring he finds most rewarding. That includes working with an inmate, 56, who let his Class II license lapse 10 years ago, which means he has to pass the operator’s test again. Riggsby refreshes him on math and water operations. He’s confident the man will get his license back and have a decent life when he gets out in a few years.

“Water is a great career,” Riggsby says as the radio sounds. “You never think about it, but you can’t live without it. I hope to be here for a long time to come. Everybody is great to work with. It’s a good atmosphere and people I like working with. I don’t even think about retiring.”

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