MANATEE -- Others may wear a cowboy hat to look cool, but Maj. Jamey Higginbotham of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office wears a cowboy hat because he’s a real honest-to-goodness cowboy.
Perhaps that’s why it was inevitable he would, literally, head out to pasture one day.
Higginbotham, 50, retired Friday as chief of the Manatee County Central Jail.
After nearly 26 years with the sheriff’s office, including four running the jail, Higginbotham, his wife, Sherry, and granddaughter, Karisa, 7, are hoping to buy a cattle ranch near Tulsa, Okla., and run 350 to 400 head of beef cattle.
“He’s a great guy,” said Dave Bristow, a sheriff’s office spokesman. “Everyone likes Jamey. No matter who you were, you liked Jamey. He was a great leader here. He will be sorely missed.”
“He was a great boss to work with,” said Carol Erwin, the executive assistant for the bureau of corrections. “He loved George Strait and the Manatee County Fair. He is country all the way.”
Higginbotham’s replacement is Tony Ackles. Ackles, Erwin quips, came to a recent party in a tropical shirt and his out-of-the-office demeanor as a “parrot head,” she said.
“We’re switching from country to Jimmy Buffet,” Erwin said with a grin.
Higginbotham might be easygoing, but not when it comes to getting the job done, his peers said.
When he came to the jail farm in 1986, there were roughly 250 prisoners and the annual budget for the jail was about $8 million.
On Friday, there were nearly 1,100 inmates and Higginbotham’s 2011 budget is between $23 million and $25 million, representing one quarter of the budget for the sheriff’s office.
He has 325 employees and the only larger division is enforcement.
In order to handle that kind of increase in inmates, Higginbotham and others realized the jail needed to raise and grow the inmates’ food.
Under Higginbotham’s watch, the jail has added hogs, a grist mill for grinding grits and making corn bread, and the number of beef cattle has increased from about 200 to 600.
“We slaughter our own beef at our own processing unit here,” Higginbotham said. “We make beef stew and hamburgers.”
Every year, Higginbotham contributes roughly $100,000 back to the county from calf sales.
He says his farm-food program saves the county millions.
“We do have air-conditioning, but we have no TV, no weights and no smoking in our jail,” Higginbotham said. “We do have basketball and a table with some cards.”
What he has learned from his years at the jail is that there is no way, except case by case, to describe what how inmates react to jail and their live afterwards.
“I have had guys who learn welding here and go out in the world and make good money,” Higginbotham said. “Some guys come here and say, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m not coming back.’ And they don’t.
“But I have inmates that I have had back repeatedly since 1986 and they are now in their 70s,” Higginbotham added. “When they get back to jail they write me notes that they want to go back to work at the farm. I send them out to the farm to bale hay or fix fences or whatever and they just work their butts off. If their tractor breaks, they jump off and fix it. They never run. They wouldn’t think to run. But if you put them in society where no one is standing here watching over them, they can’t handle it.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.