Criminal Justice

49 Alabama sheriffs are sued over refusal to say whether they pocketed leftover inmate-meal money

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Two civil rights groups have sued 49 Alabama sheriffs in an effort to learn whether they personally pocketed unspent money allocated for inmate meals.

The sheriffs may be relying on a “dubious interpretation” of state law that says they may “keep and retain” leftover prisoner meal money, according to a press release by the groups that filed suit, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

Two state attorneys general have rejected that interpretation and concluded that sheriffs can use the money for official purposes but “not to line their own pockets,” staff attorney Aaron Littman says in the press release. The Daily Report (sub. req.) and the Daily Beast covered the suit filed Monday in Hale County.

Keeping meal money for personal use creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on the feeding the inmates, the lawsuit (PDF) says. Many inmates have written the Southern Center for Human Rights to complain that they are given too little food, it has little nutritional value, it is spoiled, or it is contaminated.

Some of the food is “frankly just disgusting,” Littman told the Daily Beast. That includes food “served still-frozen, or food with insect larvae or animal droppings,” he said. Alabama allocates $1.75 per day to feed each detainee in local jails.

The suit was filed under Alabama’s public records law. The civil rights groups had asked sheriffs for information about their and their predecessors’ use of meal money in July 2017 and in two follow-up letters. The 49 defendants didn’t answer the question.

The Daily Beast illustrates the problem in its description of a court case involving the Morgan County Jail, which was operating under a special 2001 court order as a result of abuses. Sheriff Greg Bartlett was accused of violating the order in 2008 when he fed detainees corn dogs for three months. Over a three-year period, he kept $212,000 of unused meal money. He changed his practices after the court ordered his jailing until he developed a better food plan.

Morgan’s successor, Sheriff Ana Franklin was accused of using $150,000 in leftover food money to invest in a used car dealership and title loan business. She argued she wasn’t covered by the court order, but eventually repaid the money. She told the New York Times that she had done nothing illegal and had not violated anyone’s civil rights.

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