Enjoying Leftovers: Sheriffs Feed Alabama Inmates, Keep Extra Cash

By Reeves, Jay | Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque), May 6, 2018 | Go to article overview

Enjoying Leftovers: Sheriffs Feed Alabama Inmates, Keep Extra Cash


Reeves, Jay, Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque)


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - In Alabama, the less sheriffs spend on feeding inmates, the more money they get to put in their pockets.

For decades, sheriffs have made extra money - sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars - under a Depression-era system by feeding prisoners for only pennies per meal. Critics say the meals can be unhealthy, and a lawsuit against dozens of sheriffs combined with media reports about the practice threaten to end the one-of-a-kind system.

Legislators this year approved potential changes that would prevent sheriffs in two counties from keeping the excess money - including one where a former sheriff was jailed after feeding prisoners corndogs while pocketing more than $200,000 - and wider change is possible.

"I think everyone agrees that something needs to be done," said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

Republican Sen. Arthur Orr said he is working on a bill to abolish the practice.

"This law is from the 1930s. Times change. It's time we move on into the 21st century," said Orr.

Back when chain gangs were common in the late 1920s, Alabama passed a law that gave sheriffs $1.75 per day from the state to feed each prisoner, and sheriffs got to pocket anything that was left over.

Jails in most of Alabama's 67 counties remain on the system generations later. Sheriffs also get small payments from the state per jail. Some also receive payments from cities and the federal government for holding prisoners, further boosting income.

Add up all the money and a dash of frugality, like purchasing low-cost grub and accepting donated food, and sheriffs can wind up with large profits from jailhouse kitchens.

Attorney Aaron Littman, who helped sue earlier this year trying to find out how much sheriffs are making off jail food, said lawyers regularly hear complaints about poor living conditions and lousy food in jails.

"It's no way to run government," said Littman, of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. Alabama is the only state with such a setup, he said. Littman questions the legality of sheriffs pocketing the money.

The Southern Center, which advocates for change in the criminal justice system, sued with the nonprofit Alabama Appleseed for Law and Justice in January to make 49 sheriffs release information that would show how much they are making off jail food. …

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