After a decade playing pro football for the Houston Oilers and Los Angeles Rams, Mike Barber decided he wanted to preach to prisoners. “It's the best re-entry program in the world,” Barber says, explaining why he started Mike Barber Ministries back in 1986.
Five years ago Barber moved from Dallas to Houston when the Harris County Sheriff's Office offered him a contract to run chaplain services at the county lockup. “I could line up inmates as far as the eye can see to show you how the work has touched and changed lives,” Barber says. The contract, which county records show totaled about $339,000 last year, went to pay for an eight-person staff that helped organize and direct the hundreds of volunteers that minister at the jail, Barber says.
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But at 4:30 p.m. yesterday, that contract ended with an email from the sheriff's office. “They told me that, bottom line, they're terminating our contract, and they asked for all the chaplains to immediately turn in their credentials and keys and clear out everything,” Baker tells us. Baker says he wasn't given any explanation from the sheriff's office why the contract was ended.
The chaplaincy program is paid out of one of the only funds that Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman alone controls: profits from the jail commissary. County commissioners appointed Hickman, a Republican, to his post in May after former sheriff Adrian Garcia, a Democrat, resigned to run for mayor. Among the many criticisms he's lobbed at Garcia since taking office, Hickman has accused Garcia of using the commissary as his own personal "slush fund." As conservative blogger Dave Jennings reported last month, Hickman has, among other things, considered axing the $53,000 annual contract with the Houston Chronicle to provide newspapers to inmates; Hickman made this comment, it should be noted, after a scathing Chronicle story pointed out how Hickman had shaken up the ranks by demoting women and appointing a bunch of white men to command positions.
Records show the sheriff's office has spent some $59 million in commissary funds since 2009, $1.1 million of which went to Barber's ministry. Hickman spokesman Ryan Sullivan claims commissary spending “ballooned” under Garcia, and that Hickman is simply looking for efficiencies. As the jail scales back paid chaplain services like Barber's – which totaled some $2.5 million since 2009, records show – Sullivan says Hickman wants to replace “paid prayer” with a “100 percent volunteer force of chaplains covering all faiths, all sects of religion.” Sullivan says the sheriff's new executive director of public relations Edwin Davis, who happens to be a pastor (and also happens to be one of two black officers assigned to a top command post under Garcia who were demoted or fired once Hickman took over), is working with the Houston-Galveston archdiocese and other groups to establish a free, voluntary force of chaplains for the jail.
“We'll have just as many services, if not more,” Sullivan promised. “The paid prayer issue is, if we can do it for free, if the archdiocese is wiling to give us personnel to help manage it for free, if we have such a wealth of volunteers in the community … then that's an efficiency we should embrace.” Sullivan says the office is also looking to cut other spending out of the commissary fund, such as consulting contracts like this one that KTRK highlighted in April, which Sullivan says “might have been wasteful.”