Alabama Sheriffs Filled Their Wallets by Starving Prisoners

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.

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Filming Cops
Filming Cops 5618 posts

Filming Cops was started in 2010 as a conglomerative blogging service documenting police abuse. The aim isn’t to demonize the natural concept of security provision as such, but to highlight specific cases of State-monopolized police brutality that are otherwise ignored by traditional media outlets.

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