Alabama law presents the state's sheriffs with an ill-conceived temptation: feed your inmates poorly, if at all, and you can pocket any money you save.
According to the Daily Beast, 49 Alabama sheriffs refuse to reveal just how much they have taken home in personal bonuses as a result of the law, leading to a lawsuit by two civil rights groups.
The two groups, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, have good reason to ask: One Alabama sheriff recently came under fire for taking money from her jail’s food fund and investing it in an alleged get-rich-quick car loan scheme run by a convicted fraudster.
But instead of turning over documents on food funds, Alabama’s sheriffs remain tight-lipped. So the two civil rights groups are suing the 49 sheriffs to find out where detainees’ dinner money is going.
Funds for feeding inmates come on a per-person basis and generally amount to a daily allotment of $1.75. Sheriffs across the state have been found to get by on so little that one boasted a $250,000 bonus in unused "food provisions".
But most counties do not reveal how much of their jails’ food budgets made it to the dinner table, and how much went to sheriffs’ bank accounts. Beginning in July 2017, SCHR sent Alabama sheriffs four letters requesting documents on how the meal funds were being spent, which should have been available to anyone who asked under the Alabama Public Records Law. None of the sheriffs turned over the records.
Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the SCHR, said the organization receives hundreds of letters a month complaining of food issues:
“Sometimes there are concerns about people not having enough to eat, being hungry, and losing weight. Sometimes it’s food that’s not nutritious, particularly for people with various metabolic issues like diabetes. Sometimes it’s frankly just disgusting, like food that’s served still-frozen, or food with insect larvae or animal droppings.”
Littman also said the current state of affairs turns inmates - human beings - into "figures in a grim math problem":
“It stands to reason that if you give sheriffs a financial incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people in the jail, that will reduce the amount of money they spend on feeding people,” he said.