After eight years in the U.S. Army and two combat tours in Iraq, Joseph LaVigne wanted a civilian job that, like the military, provided structure in his life. 

LaVinge said he found that structure when he was hired in April 2016 as a corrections officer at Riverside Regional Jail in Prince George County. After just three years on the job, LaVigne, a Boston native who lives in Prince George with his family, recently was named "Officer of the Year" by the Virginia Association of Regional Jails at the group's annual conference.

There are 22 regional jails across the state and Riverside is one of the largest, serving seven central Virginia localities. 

"I love what I do," LaVigne said. "I'm staying here. This is my career."

LaVigne's recognition as Virginia's top regional jail officer is a morale booster at Riverside Regional Jail, which in recent months has endured scathing criticism from Chesterfield judges for alleged mistreatment of inmates with mental health issues, and increased state scrutiny for the suicide deaths of two inmates in 2017. The jail's governing board also has had to contend with multimillion-dollar budget deficits due to a declining inmate population.

Jail administrators regard LaVigne, 35, as one of their best officers because they say he embodies the exemplary attributes of work ethic, teamwork and dedication. He "demonstrates an extraordinary commitment to Riverside Regional Jail and the public safety community," officials said.

Here are several examples why:

Just a month after he was hired, Lavigne received information that one or more inmates was trying to move drugs from one jail pod to another. So LaVigne intervened and assisted in strip-searching each inmate, their jumpers and personal belongings. The inmates were escorted back to their pods, where the strip-search process was repeated.

As a result, LaVigne and his fellow officers discovered drugs inside the door of a housing unit. He received the Distinguished Unit Award.

Several months later, in early 2017, LaVigne entered a room where inmates use the restroom to perform a security check. He noticed paint shavings on the floor, which led him to observe the ceiling. He discovered that a metal bar that holds the drywall in place had been tampered with.

He then immediately began a search of the inmate restroom and discovered a white towel rolled up and stuck inside a paper towel dispenser. Inside the towel he found two homemade knives and a television remote. He received the Distinguished Officer Award. 

In a phone interview, LaVigne emphasized teamwork. "The same stuff we do on a daily basis, just watching each other's backs and helping each other out," he said. "The whole objective is to keep the inmates and staff safe."

If there was any question about how dedicated LaVigne is to Riverside, those doubts were erased late last year.

On Dec. 9, when he was scheduled to work, a snow and ice storm passed through the Tri-Cities region, leaving behind up to 14 inches of snow. "I had to get to work, but I couldn't get my vehicle out," LaVigne noted. 

That didn't stop him. He trudged 2 1/2 miles in knee-high snow and reported for duty on time. After working his shift, he volunteered to remain on duty because many other employees couldn't get to work as conditions worsened. "I knew it was going to be even harder for the next shift to get in," he said.

"Officer LaVigne displays drive and perseverance and is a self-starter," said Lt. Lisa Rose, LaVigne's supervisor. He uses exceptionally good judgment when analyzing facts and solving problems [and] he stimulates teamwork and has good communication with others."

LaVigne appears to excel at everything he does. He achieved academic excellence at Riverside's Basic Jailor Academy in March 2017 and was named valedictorian with an academic score of 96.7.

After a stint as a jail officer, LaVigne has worked the past two years in the facility's Community Corrections Division, where he processes work-release inmates and inmates who serve their sentences on weekends.

Jail officials said LaVigne's "dedication to excellence" began long before he was hired as a corrections officer. They noted his eight years of military service and two combat tours in Iraq. "I did back-to-back deployments," LaVigne said, with only four months separating his 2006-2007 and 2008-2009 tours to Kirkuk and Baghdad, respectively.

LaVigne said he has no plans to leave, despite the rigors of the job.

"It takes a special type of person to actually work in corrections," he said. "Because you have to adapt to the environment itself. Nothing is ever the same each day you come to work — different inmates, different attitudes, different things that come up or arise. You just have to adjust each day."

mbowes@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6450