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Keeping the Faith in Prison - A Commissary Story

By Frank Green - The Richmond Times Dispatch

Monday, Nov. 19, 2007

Dalvert Gilchrist stuffed two tote sacks with bags of chips, Ramen noodles and other goodies purchased from the prison commissary this month. Stepping back from a pickup window, the James River Correctional Center inmate said he spends $20 to $30 a week there, but this order was larger than most. "I don't eat all that in a week," he said, laughing. Income from commissary sales of food, cigarettes and even television sets to the state's 30,000 prison inmates goes to a fund for their welfare. Traditionally, it has paid for cable-television fees, library books, recreation equipment and the like.


Unknown to Gilchrist, legislators in 2002 amended the state budget and directed that $100,000 from the commissary fund be used to pay for faith-based services. In just five years, that amount has ballooned to $600,000, and the inmate commissary fund has quietly become the largest source of income for the Chaplain Service of the Churches of Virginia Inc., a Protestant prison-chaplain organization. While the chaplain service has become dependent on the infusion, it threatens to deplete the commissary fund. Since 2002 the group has won the Department of Corrections' faith-based services contract. Next year, it is asking for $825,000, nearly a third of the fund's annual income of $2.7 million.


Jean Auldridge, director of the inmate-advocacy group Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, supports the work of the chaplain service but was taken aback by the amount it is receiving from the inmate fund. "I would never have dreamed $600,000," she said. Auldridge said the commissary prices have long been a topic of complaint from inmates, who can only make small amounts of money from prison jobs to pay for extras from the commissary. Families can send money to their prison accounts. Gilchrist is not concerned about how the fund is used and said the prices at the commissary -- 36 cents for a can of soda, $3.99 for a pack of Newports -- are reasonable. But the Virginia Department of Corrections does not believe paying for faith-based services from the commissary fund is a suitable, long-term strategy.


Since 2002, when the payments to the chaplains began, more money has been spent by the commissary fund each year than has been taken in. As a result, the fund's ending balance has dropped from $5.6 million in 2002 to $3.9 million this year. In a 2005 report requested by legislators, the department cautioned that "at the current rate of contributions to chaplain services and other expenditures, the commissary fund will be significantly depleted in a number of years."

Ted C. Link, controller of the Department of Corrections, said this month that for now the payments are not a problem. But as the fund balance drops, other uses for the money will have to be cut or prices increased. Prisons with commissaries are charged for faith-based services based on the number of inmates they hold. "The people who manage the commissary funds at the individual institutions will say, 'This is killing us,'" Link said.


The 2005 report said an increase in prices or a reduction in other fund uses could lead to inmate unrest. It suggested using some of the profit from inmate telephone use -- money now sent to the state general fund as if it were tax revenue -- as an alternative. But instead of cutting or eliminating the amount from the commissary fund that goes to faith-based services, the General Assembly increased it to $600,000. State Del. M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who has helped the chaplain service with budget requests for commissary funds, said legislators "are used to voting [for] that, and that's just been the best way for us to do it." "We've never, to be frank . . . really debated it," he said. If the cost is larger than the fund can handle, "maybe we can be creative and look at other things." "I would scramble . . . and try and find other ways to do it" if necessary, he said of providing the chaplain service. "I don't think there's a more important thing that goes on in prisons" than faith-based programs, Cox said.


In Virginia, in addition to performing services and other functions of their own religious denominations, chaplains with the chaplain service perform the administrative job of trying to make sure the religious needs of all inmates are met. For 82 years, until 2002, the chaplain service had provided those services to state prisons at no cost to the state. The group was funded by various Protestant denominations and other private groups including Media General, the parent company of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. However, the income from churches and private sources has not kept up with prison growth in recent years. According to the chaplain service, the group now gets more money from the commissary fund than churches.


In addition to the $600,000 from the commissary fund, it hopes to take in $426,900 from churches and $321,000 from other sources this year. Among other things, the money is used to pay for the $42,000 annual salaries for 14 full-time chaplains. There are also 24 part-time chaplains, some of whom the chaplain service wants to make full-time. "Everything in the last 12 years has just skyrocketed -- the number of prisoners, the number of prisons," said Cecil E. McFarland, president of the chaplain service.


When McFarland took his job in 1995, the chaplain service budget was $410,000 and there were four full-time chaplains. "That was before they built nine new prisons and the chaplain salaries were a lot less," he said. "The commissary fund has been an invaluable asset for us, and I think it's appropriate to use that money because it's designed for the use of the inmates," McFarland added. If the fund money is lost, he said, "we're going to be right back where we were for 82 years. We're going to have to depend upon the churches, services are going to be cut and chaplain positions eliminated."