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“This incentivizes them once again to underfeed people in their custody if they know the extras can be used on bells and whistles or guns,” warns an Alabama advocate.

Voters in two Alabama counties passed local constitutional amendments on Tuesday that allow sheriffs to use money allocated for feeding people incarcerated at their jails for purposes other than food. The change comes nearly a year after Alabama lawmakers tightened restrictions on the use of these funds to ensure that jail food fund money was not misappropriated. 

Under the amendment, Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton and Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims will be able to use all money leftover from a designated food fund on law enforcement purposes such as new equipment or staff positions. Legislation passed in May 2019 limited that figure to 25 percent, and required that the rest of the money be transferred to the next year. 

Critics of the plan say they are concerned that the new rules will lead to sheriffs misusing the funds and cutting back on prisoner meals to pay for other needs. “It does certainly seem to run counter to the intent of the legislation, which is money to feed people should be spent on feeding people with only a small fraction going elsewhere,” said Carla Crowder, executive director of advocacy group Alabama Appleseed, which filed a lawsuit on the issue in 2018 along with the Southern Center for Human Rights. 

“This incentivizes them once again to underfeed people in their custody if they know the extras can be used on bells and whistles or guns,” she added.

Horton told The Appeal: Political Report that he hopes to use any surplus money to pay for more school resource officers, law enforcement officers from the sheriff’s office who work in schools. Studies have found that putting more police officers in schools increases arrests for nonviolent behavior, and make public school students more exposed to criminal charges. The county expanded the program last year, but he said there are still not enough officers for each school.

Horton took over the Etowah County sheriff’s office last year after ousting Todd Entrekin, who became known as the “beach house sheriff.” During his tenure, Entrekin pocketed roughly $750,000 from jail food funds and bought a $740,000 beach house while prisoners said they were served rotten lettuce, beans, and noodles, an investigation found. Another sheriff kept $212,000 from the food fund while serving prisoners corn dogs for each meal for weeks. 

As part of the legislation passed last year, the state increased its payment to $2.25 from $1.75 per inmate per day and required that sheriffs put the money in a separate public fund. Previously, sheriffs could keep the money in a private fund to use at their discretion. 

Horton said he has hired a dietician and nutritionist to plan meals for his roughly 800 people incarcerated at the jail each day and is committed to providing them with adequate meals. He said he doesn’t know how much money will be left over from the funds and was unable to estimate how many school resource officers that money would pay for. Of the amendment passed by voters on Tuesday, he told The Appeal, “We just wanted to be able to use that instead of let it sit and grow dust and not profit everybody, to try to make the schools a little safer and keep people from taking the wrong roads.”

Asked about whether the new rules will mean he will skimp on meals to fund school resource officers, he said that will not be the case. “One thing we try to do here is see to it first and foremost they are fed well and that ends up saving more money than if we didn’t feed well,” he said.

Since taking over, Horton said he has decreased the average daily jail population from 960 to 810 with the introduction of new programs and directives to divert people who have committed nonviolent crimes away from jail. 

Marshall County Sheriff Sims did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal. 

Read the Political Report’s other coverage of 2020 local elections.