Alabama sheriffs pocket tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars allocated to feed inmates
Between 2014 and 2016, the sheriff of one Alabama county pocketed more than $110,000 worth of "excess" taxpayer dollars his office received to feed inmates in the county jail he oversees.
Another Alabama sheriff paid a teenager to mow his lawn in 2015 using checks that drew from funds that were allocated for inmate food but ended up in one of his personal accounts.
They contend that they are not breaking the law by taking thousands of federal, state and municipal tax dollars that they receive each year as allocations to feed inmates in their jails. The two sheriffs - and likely others across the state - say they are following the letter of a longstanding Alabama state law that they believe allows for them to keep any funds designated to feed county jail inmates that do not end up being used for that purpose.
The law is at the center of a lawsuit jointly filed Jan. 5 by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The two centers sued 49 Alabama county sheriffs over their "refusal" for a period of several months "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," according to a statement they released last month.The centers contend that state law does not in fact allow the sheriffs to keep any money allocated to feed inmates. They argue that such an interpretation of the law establishes perverse incentives, leads to the misuse of tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars annually, and ultimately results in sheriffs serving inmates minimal amounts of low-quality food in county jails across the state.
"Our position is that this practice is illegal now, but it's clear that many sheriffs believe its legal for them to do this," Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told AL.com Thursday.
"Clearly this is a practice which is problematic because it creates an incentive for sheriffs to spend as little as possible on feeding folks ... and obviously when a minimal amount of money is approved for something and less than that is spent, the quality suffers."
Monroe County Sheriff Thomas Tate recently provided the Southern Center for Human Rights with copies of handwritten ledgers detailing exactly how much money his office received from federal state and municipal governments to feed inmates in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and what was done with those funds.
The documents show that the Monroe County Sheriff's Office received a total of $423,364.60 over that three-year period to pay for a total of 83,878 days worth of meals for inmates - a measure referred to as "inmate days" - in the county's jails. Of that money, $110,459.77 was "declared excess and paid to Sheriff Thomas Tate," according to the ledgers.The amount of "excess" funds Tate received rose each year, despite the fact that the number of inmate days fell each year and the per diem amounts paid to his office - $1.80 per state inmate per day; $5 per municipal inmate per day; and $10 per federal inmate per day- did not change between 2014 and 2016. In 2014, he pocketed less than $29,000; in 2016, he personally received more than $44,000. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, Monroe County was home to just 23,068 residents.
"I do it just like the law tells us to. That's about all I have to say about that," Tate said during a brief phone interview with AL.com Friday. "We feed all our inmates good and the excess goes to the sheriff. If you declare it excess, you take it and you pay taxes on it."
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin says that he has advocated for the county commission to handle the funds used to feed inmates in his jail. But that has yet to happen, and in the meantime he says he keeps the funds that remain after his inmates have been fed.
"The law says it's a personal account and that's the way I've always done it and that's the way the law reads and that's the way I do business," he said in a phone interview Friday. "That's the way the law's written."
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin says he personally keeps any money allocated to feed inmates at the county's jail (pictured here) that does not end up being used for that purpose. (Eric Schultz / firstname.lastname@example.org)
Entrekin has not provided the center with records showing how his office uses the funds it receives to feed inmates or how much it takes in each year for that purpose.
But Matt Qualls, a 20-year-old Gadsden resident who works for a landscaping company, says that Entrekin paid him $10 an hour to mow his lawn for several months in 2015 via checks with the words "Sheriff Todd Entrekin Food Provision Account" and the address of his Hokes Bluff home printed in the upper-left corner. AL.com has reviewed a photograph of one of the checks.
"I mowed his yard and his parents' yard. I was out there pretty much every day, Monday through Friday, from the end of the school year into the summer of 2015," Qualls said.
"I saw that in the corner of the checks it said Food Provision, and a couple people I knew came through the jail, and they say they got meat maybe once a month and every other day it was just beans and vegetables. I put two and two together and realized that that money could have gone toward some meat or something."
Asked about the checks, Entrekin declined to explain how he uses the funds or how much money has passed through the account, though he did confirm that it exists.
"I do have an account that says Food Provision on it," he said. "The sheriffs are being sued statewide about how this money is being used ... I'm not commenting on that because there's a lawsuit pending."Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin said last year that she loaned $150,000 from the county's inmate food fund to a now-bankrupt used car lot,as AL.com reportedat the time. She contended in federal court that she followed the law regarding use of money allocated for inmate feeding, and that she always provided inmates with adequate, nutritious food that did not leave them hungry.
Littman argues that instead of giving sheriffs any leftover money allocated to feeding inmates, Alabama counties would be better served by following the example of multiple counties - including Jefferson and Montgomery - that have instituted requirements that any such funds instead be turned over to the county government.
As it stands, Littman said he believes the law is being badly misinterpreted and that many Alabama citizens would be shocked and angered if they were aware that their tax dollars are padding sheriffs' wallets.
"Its pretty clear that when every year taxpayers are asked to spend their hard-earned dollars on any purpose - including feeding people in jails - the money should go to that purpose," he said.