County suspends corrections officer who prays with inmates

Thursday, December 16, 1999

A county jail guard in Florida has been suspended without pay for refusing to stop praying with inmates.

Officials with the Hillsborough County jail in Tampa voted on Dec. 14 to indefinitely suspend Beverly Zebrowski, a detention deputy since 1983, for flouting orders to cease praying with inmates. The officials also recommended to Sheriff Cal Henderson that she be fired.

Sgt. Rod Reder, a sheriff's department spokesman, said that it would be several weeks — some time in early January — before Henderson would decide whether to dismiss Zebrowski. Reder said he could not discuss the matter, calling it an “ongoing disciplinary investigation.”

Reder did say that although Henderson “believes in religious freedom,” there were security issues to be concerned with. He said that jail policy bars deputies such as Zebrowski from becoming too close with prisoners.

Jail officials first confronted Zebrowski in April about her actions and told her that she must stop praying with inmates. Continuing to do so, Zebrowski was again confronted by officials in November after reciting a “sinner's prayer” with an inmate. Used by protestants, a typical sinner's prayer requires a person to ask God to permit Jesus Christ to come into his or her life.

Zebrowski told the St. Petersburg Times that she thought jail officials were infringing on her freedom of religion and speech. “I don't put God in a box,” Zebrowski told the newspaper. “He comes with me everywhere I go.” Attempts to reach Zebrowski were not successful.

The newspaper also reported that since 1990 Zebrowski had received four reprimands for ignoring orders, including an order not to enter certain parts of the jail.

Ken Kerle, managing editor of American Jail, a magazine published by the American Jail Association, said that he thought Zebrowski's argument for continuing to pray with inmates was “weak and spurious.”

“Jail employees must be trained in policies and procedures and I don't ever recall a policy that gave correctional staff the right to pray with inmates,” Kerle said. “Most jails have a chaplain that tends to inmates' religious needs. Her (Zebrowski's) responsibility is to manage and supervise the inmates and make sure they comply with rules. That is a big, big responsibility.”

Eric Treene, litigation director for the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based religious- liberties group, however, said that Hillsborough County jail officials might run into some “constitutional problems” if they were simply trying to stifle informal religious interactions between Zebrowski and the inmates.

“Based on my knowledge of these situations, there are just not enough chaplains to accommodate the needs of inmates,” Treene said. “If she (Zebrowski) was freely praying with the inmates and not abusing her role to gain influence or to persuade the inmates to pray, then there is nothing wrong with that. A jail policy would be troubling if it permitted the officers to interact informally with the inmates but not let them pray.”