Jailbreak: Superintendent Isom counts the days

Ask Superintendent John Isom when he retires as head of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, and he can tell you to the minute exactly how much longer before he plays his get-out-of-jail-free card.

He retires February 1 after 40 years in law enforcement. It's not that Isom is tired of dealing with criminals; there's a practical consideration. "The state will pay me a nice salary not to work," he explains.

Isom started as a patrol officer in Fairfax in 1963, and calls that his favorite job. "It was very exciting, with never a dull moment," he recalls, sitting at his current desk job where the phone never stops ringing.

After 20 years with Fairfax, he retired as a captain and launched a new career as sheriff in Loudoun County.

During his seven years in Charlottesville, Isom enlarged and remodeled the jail, a five-year construction job that became more controversial the longer it took, especially when the contractor was removed from the job.

And what has he learned about human nature after all those years devoted to catching and keeping lawbreakers?

"A lot of our fellow human beings who are incarcerated have had a lot of bad breaks in their lives," answers the warden.

In many cases, he says, he's observed that people who end up in jail haven't had the advantages or parental guidance that he had. "There, but for the grace of God go I," he says.

He shares other nuggets of jailhouse wisdom: Most women in jail locally are there for writing bad checks or for credit card fraud.

People incarcerated do not like sex offenders. "These people have families, wives, and girlfriends," he says. "A sex offender is way down on the hierarchy scale."

And no, the local jail does not have a cell officially called "The Hole," although he concedes there are some spots the inmates may call that because there's no TV.

As for the return to the classic black-and-white striped jailhouse look, Isom is responsible for that, too. When blue jumpsuits were standard issue, he became concerned that prisoners going to court or to the hospital would be confused with all the doctors and nurses running around town.

"It got to be a worrisome thing that someone would mistake one of these guys for a medical person," he says.

The warden clears up one misperception he's noticed from nervous visitors to the jail: "I think they're more worried about safety than they should be."

But for those who suffer from claustrophobia when the cell door clangs shut, "I can't do anything about that," he says with a shrug.

Age: 61

What brought you here? I was born in Tennessee, but my father, a construction supervisor for the federal government, moved to Virginia in 1947. We lived in Mecklenburg, Fairfax, Portsmouth, and Henrico County over the years.

What's worst about living here? The traffic lights are not synchronized.

Favorite hangout? On the James River in my kayak.

What would people be surprised to know about you? I have five sons, aged from 43 to 16.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I am much too critical of myself.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? I worked my way through college, including a master's degree, going on a part-time basis. It took about 17 years.

What do people find most annoying about you? I can be somewhat stubborn.

Whom do you admire? President Jimmy Carter

Favorite book? I like fiction, and then history books, followed by bird books. Currently I am enjoying The Passenger by Patrick Davis.

What subject causes you to rant? I like to be somewhere about an hour early, and like early-morning challenges. People who are not on time cause me a lot of trouble.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? I really enjoy the computers and all that related technology. I personally think email is one of the most significant innovations in my lifetime.

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The stores that put the sporting goods somewhere in the back where you have to walk through the entire store to get to the sporting goods.

What do you drive? 1984 Ford pickup and a 1992 Ford Explorer, which is running strong at 190,000 miles.

What's in your car tape player right now? A book on tape. I don't even have a music tape in my car.

What's your next journey? Florida early in the spring to go fishing with one of my sons. I also have a couple of hikes planned for the Appalachian Trail in the spring.

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I have had a parking ticket.

What do you regret? I would live exactly as I have, but try to do more physical activity. The desk job I have is very sedentary.

Favorite comfort food? Peanuts

What's always in your refrigerator? Milk

Must-see TV? Fear Factor and Survivor

 Favorite cartoon? I enjoy old cartoons and don't even understand most of the newer ones.

Describe a perfect day. One where you and the family get up and all are healthy. Also a fall day, cool but with sunshine.

Most embarrassing moment? I manage to embarrass myself fairly often, so I think the most recent would be the one most remembered.

Best advice you ever got? "Go to college"– from my dad and mom.

Favorite bumper sticker? ISOM for Sheriff. Keep in mind I was sheriff for 12 years.