In Alabama, the less sheriffs spend on feeding inmates, the more money they get to put in their own pockets.
For decades, sheriffs have made extra money — sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars — under a Depression-era system by feeding prisoners for only pennies per meal while being reimbursed at a higher rate. Critics say the meals can be unhealthy, and a lawsuit against dozens of sheriffs combined with media reports about the practice threaten to end the one-of-a-kind system.
Legislators this year approved potential changes that would prevent sheriffs in two counties from keeping the excess money — including one where a former sheriff was jailed after feeding prisoners corndogs while pocketing more than $200,000 — and wider change is possible.
“I think everyone agrees that something needs to be done,” said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Assn. of County Commissions of Alabama.
Republican Sen. Arthur Orr said he was working on a bill to abolish the practice.
“This law is from the 1930s. Times change. It’s time we move on into the 21st century,” said Orr.
In the late 1920s, when chain gangs were common, Alabama passed a law that gave sheriffs $1.75 a day from the state to feed each prisoner, and sheriffs got to pocket anything that was left over.
Generations later, jails in most of Alabama’s 67 counties remain on the system. Sheriffs also get small payments from the state per jail. Some also receive payments from cities and the federal government for holding prisoners, further boosting income.
Add up all the money and a dash of frugality, like purchasing low-cost grub and accepting donated food, and sheriffs can wind up with large profits from jailhouse kitchens.
Attorney Aaron Littman, who helped sue earlier this year trying to find out how much sheriffs are making off jail food programs, said lawyers regularly hear complaints about poor living conditions and lousy food in jails.
“It’s no way to run government,” said Littman, of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. Alabama is the only state with such a setup, he said. Littman questions the legality of sheriffs pocketing the money.
The Southern Center, which advocates for change in the criminal justice system, sued with the nonprofit Alabama Appleseed for Law and Justice in January to make 49 sheriffs release information that would show how much they are making off jail food.
Sheriffs have refused, arguing in court that the numbers are personal and private.
Some of the amounts have been revealed. Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate collected “excess” jail feeding funds of $110,458 over three years ending in 2016 — a tidy amount for a south Alabama county with only 22,000 residents and a median family income estimated at $42,335 annually by the Census Bureau, according to an accounting turned over to a plaintiff’s lawyer.
In mid-sized Etowah County, where the jail holds 900 people on average, Sheriff Todd Entrekin recently released tax forms showing he made a profit of $672,392 from the jail kitchen in 2015 and 2016.
Entrekin made the documents public during a news conference where he denied malnourishing prisoners and denied news reports linking food profits and a beach condominium he and his wife purchased for $740,000 last year.
“Nobody here is underfed. Nobody here is mistreated. I will say it’s not the Ritz, so you won’t be treated like a king. You will be treated like someone who has broken the law, which means you won’t get your choice about what or when you eat,” Entrekin told reporters.
Last year, a federal judge held Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin in contempt and fined her $1,000 because she took $160,000 from a jail food account.
The judge ruled Franklin’s actions violated an agreement reached by former Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett, who was briefly held in his own jail in 2009 after a federal judge held him in contempt for feeding skimpy meals to boost his profit, which Bartlett said was $212,000 over three years. Bartlett went in with another sheriff to purchase a truckload of corndogs for $1,000 and fed them to prisoners for weeks, evidence showed.
Franklin argued she wasn’t bound by Bartlett’s agreement, but a court disagreed.
Sheriffs in Morgan and neighboring Cullman County in coming years would be required to spend any excess food money on police needs under proposed constitutional amendments approved this year by lawmakers, but voters still must OK the measures. It’s unclear how much is at stake since they, like most other sheriffs, haven’t publicly released detailed information about their operations.
Sheriffs’ responses to the suit seeking financial information have been coordinated in part by the Alabama Sheriff’s Assn., where longtime executive director Bobby Timmons did not return a message seeking comment.