Several Virginia sheriffs have used public money to pay for services from Christian groups that
minister to prisoners, the Virginia-Pilot reported on March 2, 2006. The payments have drawn
criticism from some watchdog groups that advocate for a strong separation of church and state.
Portsmouth Sheriff Gary Waters has paid the most. Over a 2-year period Waters paid $45,650 to
the nonprofit Southeastern Correctional Ministry, Inc. (SCM). But Waters isnt the only sheriff
doling out public money to Christian groups. During the same 2-year period the Hampton
Sheriffs Office contributed $21,180 to SCM. Another Christian group, the Good News Jail &
Prison Ministry, received a $15,000 donation from the Virginia Beach Sheriffs Office, said Sheriff
All the payments were made with money from jail canteens--prison stores that sell snacks and
other items to prisoners. Under state law, however, canteen funds are designated as public
money. Moreover, according to a manual for jail bookkeepers, donations to charities are
We don't think that the city of Portsmouth jail can provide funds for a sectarian religious
organization to bring its message into the prison system, said Kent Williams, who works with
the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union. "Jail officials should allow prisoners access to Christian
groups", Willis said," but a line exists between promoting and accommodating a specific religion.
Whats more, all the spending may not be for the prisoners benefit."
For instance, a records review by the Virginia-Pilot found that Sheriff Waters spent $460 to buy
tickets to a retirement dinner for a former SCM chaplain, to sponsor a hole at an SCM golf
tournament, and for deputies to play golf at the event.
When you pay for that golf trip, youve misused public funds, said Walter Kucharski, the state's
auditor of public accounts.
Waters payments to SCM were supposedly based on a per contact rate. In February 2004
Waters paid $16,103 for the ministrys services. He paid another $13,347 in February 2005. In
July 2005, after Waters lost the Democratic election, he agreed to make the scheduled February
2006 payment in advance.
On your request, I have estimated the cost of ministry for the Portsmouth City Jail using the last
two years, SCM chaplain Jack Smith wrote to Waters. After averaging in another 10% for ministry
upgrades, Smith presented a bill for $16,200. Waters promptly paid the fee.
Waters successor, Sheriff Bill Watson, was reportedly unable to locate a contract for SCM. Why
should we pay for ministering? he said.
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