Archive for Saturday, May 17, 2008

Alabama sheriffs feed inmates on $1.75 a day

Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely is shown in the jail kitchen as he discusses feeding prisoners on April 9 in Athens, Ala. Back in the day of chain gangs, Alabama passed a law that gave sheriffs $1.75 a day to feed each prisoner in their jails, and the sheriffs got to pocket anything that was left over. Most Alabama counties still operate under this system.

Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely is shown in the jail kitchen as he discusses feeding prisoners on April 9 in Athens, Ala. Back in the day of chain gangs, Alabama passed a law that gave sheriffs $1.75 a day to feed each prisoner in their jails, and the sheriffs got to pocket anything that was left over. Most Alabama counties still operate under this system.

May 17, 2008

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— Back in the day of chain gangs, Alabama passed a law that gave sheriffs $1.75 a day to feed each prisoner in their jails, and the sheriffs got to pocket anything that was left over.

More than 80 years later, most Alabama counties still operate under this system, with the same $1.75-a-day allowance, and some sheriffs are actually making money on top of their salaries. But exactly how much is something of a mystery because state auditors do not have access to sheriffs' private accounts.

How could anyone turn a profit feeding men and women for an entire day on less than the price of a Coke and a bag of Fritos? Sheriffs practice Depression-style frugality and rely on such things as day-old bread, cut-rate vegetables and cheap inmate labor.

Two sides to the story

Critics charge that Alabama is, in effect, paying law enforcement to skimp on food and may be rewarding sheriffs for mistreating prisoners.

"It's a bad system, and it ought not be that way," said Buddy Sharpless, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

A prisoner advocate said he constantly hears complaints about jail food.

"Most of it is like powdered food, and the portions are minimal in the county jails," said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, who visits Alabama jails to register prisoners to vote.

The few sheriffs who would discuss the arrangement defended it as cost-effective for their counties and disputed any suggestion they are making a lot of money.

"If you've got the most lucrative food account in the state, you're not getting rich," said Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.

They noted, too, that it's not all gravy for them: The system makes them personally liable for budget shortfalls and, possibly, lawsuits over jail food.

Profits unknown

The head of the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, Ron Jones, said state auditors cannot determine how much some sheriffs are making off the system because the lawmen put the money in personal accounts.

In Morgan County, which includes Decatur, a state audit found that Sheriff Greg Bartlett spent $163,991 feeding inmates and personally received an additional $103,947 for two years ending in May 2005. But Jones said there was no way for auditors to determine how much of the money that went to the sheriff was profit, because sheriffs may be buying food out of their own pockets. Bartlett did not return calls for comment.

When Etowah County Sheriff James Hayes died in October, thousands of dollars in jail food money went to his estate because it was kept in his personal accounts.

His successor, Todd Entrekin, said he and his wife took out a personal loan for $150,000 the day he took office to purchase jail food until his first state payment came through.

"It's the most money I've ever borrowed in my life, even more than for my house," Entrekin said.

81 years later

According to legislative researchers, the $1.75-a-day-per-inmate system in Alabama dates to 1927, back when sheriffs and other county officeholders in many states were paid fixed fees for services performed and were allowed to keep whatever was left over.

All but 12 of Alabama's 67 county jails remain on the fee system, with the state paying a total of $5 million to 55 sheriffs last year.

National corrections groups said they do not know of any other states with a system like Alabama's, though some individual counties may use a fee system.

The $1.75 fee was fairly generous at the time, with a reasonable profit built into it for the sheriffs. Besides the $1.75, sheriffs get additional state payments of as much as $11.25 a day for the entire jail. But in a jail with hundreds of inmates, that works out to just a few extra pennies per person for food.

By comparison, the government pays schools $2.47 for serving a single free meal under the National School Lunch Program for low-income students.

Looking for deals

Cherokee County Sheriff Jeff Shaver said he has figured out how to feed prisoners on $1.75 a day and still turn a little profit, and he doesn't get complaints about the grub.

"These people eat better here than they eat on the street, and they eat three times a day," Shaver said.

He said he is constantly on the lookout for good deals on food, pays two cooks and supplements their work with trusty labor, and wastes nothing, turning today's leftovers tomorrow's soup.

Blakely, the Limestone County sheriff, said he searches for deals on fresh vegetables, eggs and milk. Prisoners get three meals on weekdays, two on weekends and holidays. "They get a lot of beans, but we feed them meat every day," Blakely said

Comments

TopJayhawk 7 years ago

Don't like the food, don't do the time. Pretty simple concept

lounger 7 years ago

Corruption just cant stop in old Alabama!!

TopJayhawk 7 years ago

OOPS, I meant don't do the crime

Jean1183 7 years ago

Agreed, TopJayhawk! MORE jails should be this way. AND bring back chain gangs. Alabama had them at least until the early 1970's as I remember seeing them picking up trash along the highways when I lived there.

geekin_topekan 7 years ago

I stopped at a road side chain gang in Alabama a few summers ago and asked the sheriff in charge where the nearest soup kitchen was.He said "I don't know but I think I can help you out".He went into the jail's bus and retreived four sack lunches(Two for each of us)and said "Have a nice day".Pretty nice gesture Id say.A Mystery Meat sandwich,a bag of fritos.an apple and a pouch of 2% milk.

BalkansHawk 7 years ago

"They get a lot of beans, but we feed them meat every day," Blakely said."Made me think of the camp fire scene in Blazing Saddles.

Confrontation 7 years ago

Maybe these sheriffs can teach the welfare moms how to cook with their "limited" food stamps.

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