Will Alabama Sheriffs Finally Stop Diverting Jail Food Funds To Their Own Wallets?
The governor is making sheriffs sign an oath promising they won't misuse funds meant to feed jail prisoners. But some sheriffs are already pushing back.
After the revelation that several Alabama sheriffs were pocketing funds meant for feeding people in jail, Governor Kay Ivey asked every sheriff in the state to sign an “oath” pledging that the state funds would be used only for the facilitation of feeding prisoners. But it may not go far enough to keep sheriffs from skimping on prisoners’ meals.
Beginning on Sept. 1, the form sheriffs must submit to receive state money for jail food funds (typically $1.75 per inmate per day) was updated to include an oath stating that the money will be “used only for the appropriated purpose: ‘food for prisoners in the county jail.’” The affidavit is being treated as a legal document and “any evidence of misappropriation, making a false official statement, or use of office for personal gain, could be referred for criminal prosecution,” Ivey’s spokesperson Daniel Sparkman told The Appeal.
While sheriffs have skimmed from the jail food fund, prisoners across the state have reported their food is inadequate, spoiled, and contaminated with insect or rodent droppings, according to a lawsuit filed in January by the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. In the Etowah County jail, where the “beach house sheriff” presides, prisoners were being served rotten lettuce, beans, and noodles that one man called “the worst food I’ve ever had in my life,” AL.com revealed. This wasn’t unique to Etowah County, however: Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was briefly jailed in 2009 after he kept $212,000 from the food fund while he served prisoners corndogs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for several weeks. Many sheriffs have refused to disclose whether they took food funds or what they did with them.
But the enforcement of this oath has limitations. Any evidence would be found during an audit, which only occurs every three to four years, according to state audit officials. Additionally, the affidavit doesn’t cover the federal, county, or municipal funds that sheriffs may receive to feed their prisoners.
And other arms of government are sending a different message. Shortly after sheriffs began signing the oath in September, a state ethics commission cleared Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who raked in roughly $750,000 from jail food funds and infamously bought a $740,000 beach house.
Meanwhile, the oath does not resolve an underlying dispute over what the law actually allows sheriffs to do with excess jail food funds.
The Depression-era law that sheriffs say gives them the right to pocket these funds may have made sense at the time; sheriffs’ homes were usually connected to the jails and they used their home kitchens to feed prisoners. But its relevance has been long debated since then. A 2008 ruling by then-Attorney General Troy King said sheriffs had a right to keep excess funds. But in 2011, his successor, Luther Strange, wrote in an opinion that sheriffs could not use the funds for “any purpose other than future expenses in feeding prisoners.” After reviewing the practice, Ivey has sided with Strange.
Aaron Littman, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, cheered Ivey’s oath and said it is another useful mechanism to hold sheriffs accountable for how they use the funds. “This affidavit confirms they are not violating the law by misappropriating public funds; it doesn’t reflect a change in what they’re able to do,” he told The Appeal. “It was unlawful to take the funds before the change in the affidavit, and it remains unlawful now.”
As of Sept. 25, 13 sheriffs had submitted the signed affidavits to the comptroller’s office. This isn’t an indication of support for the policy, however, since they can send them in whenever they want as long as it’s by the end of each fiscal year.
But some sheriffs are already pushing back against the oath. The Alabama Sheriffs Association has maintained the position that pocketing the funds is still within the law and only the legislature has the ability to change that. Chilton County Sheriff John Shearon, who signed the oath, told The Appeal that there’s “a lot of gray area” surrounding the ability to keep funds, and although he saw the potential for questionable practices, he thought the state should have simply waited to pass legislation. “Everything is upside down, we really have no clue,” he said. “I think it probably could have been done a little bit different, it should have been done next year in the legislature, it should have been done in more of a controlled manner.”
He would not say whether he had kept excess food funds from his 179-bed jail. He has also refused to give the Southern Center for Human Rights access to records showing how he had used the funds, telling a paralegal he did not believe they are “subject to disclosure under state law,” according to the lawsuit. Shearon said he wanted to hand over the responsibility of feeding prisoners to someone else, calling it “nothing but a headache.”
Robert Timmons, the sheriffs association director, also told AL.com that Ivey didn’t have the authority to prevent sheriffs from keeping the money. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal.
Last legislative session, bipartisan efforts to change the law or add amendments that would forbid the practice in designated counties stalled. When the legislature reconvenes in March, Alabama Appleseed will push a bill that would end the practice statewide.
“We are supporting legislative efforts not because we think it’s necessary, because we think the law is clear and to once and for all put this issue to rest,” said executive director Frank Knaack. “Some sheriffs continue to think that the law seems to not apply to them.”