A strange Alabama law allowing sheriffs to pocket savings on inmate meals is bringing allegations of corruption to offices and counties across the state.
For decades, writes the New York Times, sheriffs prospered by manipulating a Depression-era system imposed to save the state money. By feeding inmates for pennies per meal, officers can keep the change. Sometimes the difference can accrue past pennies, growing into the tens of thousands.
In the past year, legislators approved changes that would stop sheriffs in two countries from padding their wallets. One sheriff, reports the Times, was jailed for feeding prisoners corn dogs and taking home more than $200,000.
Another official, claims CBS News, used $750,000 in leftover funds to purchase a beach house. Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin maintained in interviews and statements that he was simply following the law of the land – albeit a law that passed before the onset of the Second World War.
Wider regulation is expected to be approved and put into place soon.
Republican Sen. Arthur Orr says he’s working on legislation to scrap the outdated and borderline-malicious practice.
“This law is from the 1930s,” said Orr. “Times change.
“It’s time we move on into the 21st century.”
Advocates and civil rights attorneys agree. Critics of the law – not surprisingly – have said it entices sheriffs to under-feed inmates. In several cases, detainees in county lock-ups were denied nutritious, subsistence-level meals.
Part of the reason, writes the Times, is the small amount sheriffs in the late 1920s and ‘30s could afford allotting to prisoners’ dinnerplates. A law passed during the height of the Depression gave offices $1.75 per day, funded by the state, to feed inmates.
Somehow, nearly ninety years later, jails in most of Alabama’s 67 counties remain paying homage to the same system.
“I think everyone agrees that something needs to be done,” said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.
Attorney Aaron Littman of the Southern Center for Humans rights led a lawsuit earlier in 2018. His aim was to find out how much sheriffs were making from skimping on jail food.
“It’s no way to run government,” said Littman.
Sheriffs reputedly rebuked the lawsuit, claiming that their profits are a personal matter.
Meanwhile, Etowah County Sheriff Entrekin’s tax returns show a profit of close to $700,000 from jail meals between 2015 and 2016 alone. Entrekin’s jail holds around 900 prisoners on average, according to the Times.
“Nobody here is underfed,” said Sheriff Entrekin, speaking at a press conference. “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.”
Advocacy groups continued to press suits against the state in January, demanding access to public records pertaining to sheriff savings and jail meal funding. The Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice note that 49 sheriffs have yet to comply with their request.
Entrekin, meanwhile, has maintained that he’s the victim of a devilish left-wing conspiracy. In a statement delivered to NPR, he said that the “liberal media has began [sic] attacking me for following the letter of the law.”