Alabama law lets sheriffs keep whatever doesn’t get spent on food from their jail food funds. Now 49 of those sheriffs are refusing to disclose how much of that money made it to detainees’ plates, and how much landed in their own pockets.
Since July, two civil-rights groups have been asking Alabama sheriffs for their bookkeeping on jailhouse meal funds. The two groups, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, have good reason to ask: One Alabama sheriff recently came under fire for taking money from her jail’s food fund and investing it in an alleged get-rich-quick car loan scheme run by a convicted fraudster. But instead of turning over documents on food funds, Alabama’s sheriffs remain tight-lipped. So the two civil rights groups are suing the 49 sheriffs to find out where detainees’ dinner money is going.
“In most counties, money comes in on a per-inmate, per-day basis,” Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the SCHR told The Daily Beast. In most cases, Alabama gives sheriffs $1.75 per day to feed each detainee, although that rate might vary for people detained on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
If sheriffs don’t spend all the meal money, Alabama lets them pocket it for personal use. For some sheriffs, that means hundreds of thousands in bonus cash. In Alabama’s Etowah County, the sheriff took $250,000 in “compensation” from “food provisions” in 2016, according to documents reviewed by the SCHR.
But most counties do not reveal how much of their jails’ food budgets made it to the dinner table, and how much went to sheriffs’ bank accounts. Beginning in July 2017, SCHR sent Alabama sheriffs four letters requesting documents on how the meal funds were being spent, which should have been available to anyone who asked under the Alabama Public Records Law. None of the sheriffs turned over the records.
While sheriffs’ wallets bulge, Alabama inmates starve, civil rights activists say.
“We as an organization receive hundreds of letters a month from people in jails in Alabama,” Littman said. “Sometimes there are concerns about people not having enough to eat, being hungry, and losing weight. Sometimes it’s food that’s not nutritious, particularly for people with various metabolic issues like diabetes. Sometimes it’s frankly just disgusting, like food that’s served still-frozen, or food with insect larvae or animal droppings.”
Alabama’s Morgan County jail has been operating under a special court order since 2001, when detainees sued then-Sheriff Steve Crabbe over abuses in the jail (including inadequate food), and won so handily that a court ordered the county to build a new jail.
“The food is inadequate in amount and unsanitary in presentation,” a judge concluded in a scathing ruling that found “the sardine-can appearance of its cell units more nearly resemble the holding units of slave ships during the Middle Passage of the eighteenth century than anything in the twenty-first century.”
The case saw a second life in 2008, under Greg Bartlett, a new Morgan County sheriff, who violated the court order with his strict rations for detainees. In a stunt that earned him the nickname “Sheriff Corn Dog,” Bartlett allegedly fed detainees two corn dogs a day for weeks to save money. At a hearing, Bartlett testified that he and a sheriff from a neighboring county had kept food costs down by splitting an 18-wheeler full of corn dogs, which cost them a combined $1,000.
Detainees and nutritionists from Bartlett’s jail testified that the food was woefully inadequate, that detainees were shedding weight, and that detainees were regularly spending over $20 a week on unhealthy snacks at the jail’s commissary to make up for calorie-poor meals. A judge found Bartlett — who had legally pocketed $212,000 of “surplus” meal money over the previous three years — had violated the jail’s court order, and ordered him briefly detained in his own jail until he came up with a plan plan to feed all his detainees. The court order was amended to explicitly prohibit the Morgan County sheriff from spending the funds on anything besides food.
When Bartlett lost reelection in 2010, his successor made her own play for the food funds. Even before taking office, Sheriff Ana Franklin reportedly asked the county attorney if she could pocket the leftover food money. The answer, as stated in the court order, was no.
That didn’t stop Franklin from taking $160,000 from the food fund in 2015 and writing a $150,000 check to Priceville Partners L.L.C., a used car dealership and title loan business run by a man previously convicted in a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme. For investors like Franklin, the dealership was allegedly a get-rich-quick plan. Records show one Alabama law enforcement officer promising another a 70 percent return within a month if he gave Priceville Partners $10,000. The car dealership went bankrupt in 2016. Its owner was charged with eight counts of first-degree theft, one count of second-degree theft, and two counts of second-degree forgery in connection to the business.
In the subsequent legal battle, Franklin argued that she should have been allowed to keep money from the jail food fund, because the court order had been issued under her predecessor. After she repaid the $150,000, a court slapped her with a $1,000 fine for violating the court order.
But the legal fallout resulted in a major win for Franklin: a judge lifted the court order against taking money from the food fund, allowing Franklin to move more of the jail money to her own accounts.
Even before the ruling, meals had been stingy in Franklin’s jail. The SCHR last year described meals in Franklin’s facility consisting of as “a tiny amount of soup, a spoonful of grits, five or six green beans or carrot slices as a vegetable serving, a sandwich with half of a slice of cheese on it.”
During a recent chicken dinner, “many inmates reportedly received cooking liquid from the pan in place of meat because the kitchen ran out of chicken,” the center wrote. “Another person reported that the protein item for a recent lunch was half of a hotdog.”
The law reduces detainees to figures in a grim math problem Littman described.
“It stands to reason that if you give sheriffs a financial incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people in the jail, that will reduce the amount of money they spend on feeding people,” he said.