Civil Rights groups sue 49 Alabama sheriffs for access to public records showing how sheriffs personally profit from funds allocated for feeding people in jail
Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith is among the 49 Alabama sheriffs named in a lawsuit filed recently challenging the refusal of the sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails.
The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed the lawsuit in state court challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails. The lawsuit was filed in Hale County Circuit Court.
Smith said the state issues an allowance of $1.75 a day per inmate for three meals a day. At present, it costs $2.84 per day to feed an inmate three meals.
“It’s been that way since the 1970s,” Smith said. “Back when the county jail was a place to house inmates until they go to court, the sheriff’s wife did the cooking for the jail.”
Back then, $1.75 was conditional, he said.
“The way the law is written, the sheriff is personally responsible to feed inmates a balanced, nutritious meal,” he said. “It’s not impossible to do it with $1.75.”
Smith said there are only a few municipal inmates from East Brewton, Flomaton and Brewton inside the jail at the moment.
The SCHR has called into question whether a state law authorizing sheriffs to “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails allows them to take any amounts not spent on food as personal income.
“Everybody knows that this is wrong, but the state won’t change the law because they’re saving way too much money,” Smith said.
For some time, the Escambia County Detention Center has served as a transfer point for federal inmates between New Orleans, La. and Atlanta, Ga.
Smith said because of this, the jail gets $10 per day for every federal inmate for food.
“The county allows me to use up to $10 per day per federal inmate,” he said. “That’s how we’ve been able to avoid me continuing to borrow money to feed the inmates.”
Smith said the population numbers of federal inmates fluctuates often, as they can have as many as 60 one day and 30 the next.
Smith said no one from either of the organizations involved in the suit has contacted him.
Additionally, Smith said there have been plenty of times where he’s had to borrow money to pay for inmates’ food.
Aaron Littman of the SCHR said recently that his organization sent open records requests across the state seeking information about food accounts.
“A relatively small faction responded adequately by confirming they don’t take the money or showing that they do,” he said. “Others didn’t respond at all, or responded with a form letter from the Sheriffs’ Association.”
Those who did not adequately comply with the request were named in the suit, he said.
Littman said interpreting the law as allowing sheriffs to pocket any difference in income and expenses “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.”
Smith said the county hired a retired lunchroom worker to feed the inmates, and all meals go by what the state requires.
In 2009, the former Morgan County sheriff was held in contempt and jailed by a federal judge after he purchased half of an 18-wheeler load of corn dogs for $500 and fed them to inmates at every meal. During the preceding year, he had skimmed almost $100,000 from his office’s food money account.
The plaintiffs are seeking an order from the court that the records they requested are public, and that the defendants must produce them.
“We certainly hope that they comply,” Littman said. “The goal is not to have a court battle, but to get records the public is entitled to see.”
Other sheriffs named in the suit include the sheriffs of Autauga, Baldwin,
Barbour, Bibb, Blount, Bullock, Butler, Chambers, Chilton, Choctaw, Clarke, Clay, Cleburne, Coffee, Colbert, Conecuh, Coosa, Crenshaw, Cullman, Dale, Elmore, Escambia, Etowah, Fayette, Franklin, Geneva, Greene, Hale, Henry, Jackson, Lamar, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Marion, Marshall, Pickens, Pike, Randolph, St. Clair, Sumter, Tallapoosa, Washington, Wilcox, and Winston counties.