Chaplain John Poffenberger figures he has a pretty good handle on what most criminals need. In charge of religious services at the Alexandria jail for two decades, he has ministered to shoplifters, drug dealers and murderers and has even had sessions with convicted Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
“In jail, you don’t have to convince inmates that they have to get help from something bigger than themselves,” Poffenberger said. “It’s that God sense that comes when they get into trouble. They need help, and they need it from someone more powerful than themselves.”
For years, Poffenberger and his employer, the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, have had a contract with the jail to arrange services for everything from Christmas to Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah. But now a civil liberties group is questioning whether the payment deal Good News has with the jail in Alexandria and elsewhere is constitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says the use of public funds to pay such organizations as Good News, an evangelical Christian group headquartered in Richmond, threatens the constitutional separation of church and state. The ACLU has called for three jails in the state to end similar contracts with another Christian jail ministry, the Southeastern Correctional Ministry, and last month it wrote to 25 jail administrators asking for information about their contracts with Southeastern, Good News and other organizations that provide religious services.
So far, one facility — the Hampton jail — has said it will suspend payments and has asked Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) to issue an opinion on whether the practice is legal. The ACLU has no immediate plans to take the matter to court but is concerned that the use of one group to provide those services could result in undue bias, said Kent Willis, the executive director.
“Where this is difficult is that the jails are asking and paying a Christian organization to promote what should be nonsectarian religious services,” Willis said. “Jails and prisons ought to open their doors to religious entities, but the important thing is that the jails open their doors to all religions equally.”
Last year, the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office used jail funds to pay Good News $5,500 for religious services. Under its contract with Good News, the sheriff’s office has agreed to pay a total of $45,000 for the next four years, according to Capt. Tony Davis. In October, the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office signed a renewable agreement that calls for paying Good News $10,000 annually, according to the ACLU.
Good News has similar deals with other Virginia jails, including in Fairfax and Prince William counties. The Fairfax sheriff’s office does not pay for those services as a matter of policy, said Lt. Larry Nida, the jail’s program supervisor.
Arlington Sheriff Beth Arthur said she sees no problem with the payments. “You can get into this conversation about the separation of church and state, but if we can provide a service that helps the men and women in our jail become better citizens and return to our community as productive citizens, then we’re going to do that,” Arthur said.
Under Virginia law, sheriff’s offices can spend profits raised from a jail canteen on services that specifically benefit inmates. The funds are usually collected from canteen purchases for such items as snacks or toothpaste, which are paid for from an inmate’s account. However, a 2002 amendment to the statute stipulates that commissary funds are considered public money.
Good News officials say there is nothing untoward or unusual about the group’s deals with jails. The group provides services to 14 county and regional jails in Virginia and to eight facilities in Maryland. With 390 staff chaplains serving 319 institutions in 23 states, the 45-year-old nonprofit group is one of the nation’s largest private providers of jail chaplains.
Leroy Davis, vice president of the group’s national ministry, said Good News receives most of its financial support from individuals and churches. The organization does not accept taxpayer funding and does not consider canteen funds to be government money, he said.
“We do not proselytize. We are there at the invitation of the [jail] administration. There’s nothing compulsory on the part of inmates. They’re not required to attend services,” Davis said.
Under its agreements with the jails in Arlington, Alexandria and elsewhere, Good News acts as a broker of religious services, much like military chaplains. Good News trains chaplains to assist inmates of all faiths.
“With the idea of a chaplain, the key word is to facilitate — to make sure that [inmates’] basic religious needs are actually met,” said Arlington chaplain Earl Karl. “I do more work for the Islamic faith than for the Christian faith.”
Founded in Fairfax by William L. Simmer, Good News has evangelical Christian roots with a stated mission of spreading the Christian Gospel to the incarcerated. The group’s goal, according to its Web site, is to place 500 of its chaplains in jails across the country by 2007.
The group’s evangelical mission troubles Willis.
“Good News’s clear mission is to provide Christian services, and our concern is that bias . . . may result in more emphasis on Christian practices that results in the exclusion of other religious services,” he said.
That has been the case with Southeastern’s jail ministries in southern Virginia, according to Tom Elliott, a Catholic deacon in the Richmond Catholic archdiocese and coordinator of the local Catholic prison ministry. Elliott said that the archdiocese has had good relations with Good News but that there have historically been serious tensions with Southeastern.
“They’re basically restricting access at the jails because they like to proselytize, and that’s unfortunate,” Elliott said. There was no response to messages left at Southeastern’s office in Hampton.
Col. Karen Bowden, Hampton’s undersheriff, said that Southeastern has provided religious services at the Hampton jail for about 20 years and that inmates look forward to the twice-weekly Bible studies and regular church services.
The Rev. John Boddie, a Catholic priest who has worked with inmates for years, takes a dimmer view of Southeastern’s work. For several months, Boddie said, administrators at the Saluda jail in Middlesex County banned Catholic volunteers from providing religious services at the jail unless they signed an evangelical “statement of faith” mandated under Southeastern’s agreement.
Boddie said that the statement contradicts Catholic teachings and that mission volunteers have refused to sign it. The impasse was partially resolved when jail administrators allowed Catholic volunteers in last month. But Boddie is still skeptical about evangelical jail ministries.
“They wanted to have one particular Christian point of view, and that happened to be the more evangelical point of view,” Boddie said. “I have no problem with the evangelical. I just don’t think it should monopolize the jails.”