The Southern Center for Human Rights, and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit last week in state court because 49 Alabama sheriffs refused to produce public records showing how much the Sheriffs personally profited from funds allocated to feeding inmates in their jails.
The Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice say that many sheriffs in Alabama believe a state law authorizing them to personally “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars allotted for feeding their prisoners permits them to take any money they do not actually spend on food as personal income, reported Cullman Today.
“This archaic system is based on a dubious interpretation of state law that has been rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes–not to line their own pockets,” said Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It also raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail.”
The organizations are attempting to see how many sheriffs are actually misusing this law to essentially steal food from inmates, so they sent letters requesting copies of the public financial records showing how much each actually kept for personal use.
Although certain sheriffs have responded in compliance with Alabama’s open records law, 49 sheriffs have refused for nearly half a year to comply with their clear obligations to produce the records, claiming instead that these documents are “personal.”
Some sheriffs, who apparently were not trying to hide anything, even responded to a request by the organizations for records regarding any jail food that was donated.
“The public has a right to know whether sheriffs are meeting the basic human needs of incarcerated people in their care, or are instead filling their personal coffers,” said Frank Knaack, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “The Alabama Public Records Law exists so that we can hold our government accountable. Unfortunately, some sheriffs have decided that our public records law does not apply to them.”
The Southern Center for Human Rights regularly receives reports from people in Alabama jails about being provided inadequate or unhealthy meals or food that is spoiled or contaminated.
It is difficult to tell how much sheriff’s steal from inmates because most do not report it as income on state financial disclosure forms.
The organization cited a gross abuse of power in a 2009 case in which the former Morgan County sheriff was held in contempt and jailed by a federal judge after he purchased half a semi load of corn dogs for $500 and fed them to inmates at every meal. The sheriff then stole almost $100,000 in funds allotted for inmate food.
Cullman Today reported one sheriff took more than $250,000 in “compensation” from “food provisions” in both 2016 and 2015. Another sheriff was held in contempt of a federal court in 2017 after removing $160,000 from the jail food account and investing it in a used car dealership.