updated 1/8/2009 10:29:32 AM ET 2009-01-08T15:29:32

This time, somebody listened to prisoners' complaints over lousy jail food.

A northern Alabama sheriff was in federal custody Thursday after a judge ruled he purposely fed inmates skimpy meals so he could make money from an unusual Alabama system that lets sheriffs turn a profit on their jail kitchens.

Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett testified at a Wednesday court hearing that he made $212,000 over three years feeding prisoners — every cent of it legal under a Depression-era state law and reported on his tax forms as income.

But U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon ordered federal marshals to arrest Bartlett after hearing a string of skinny prisoners testify they were served paper-thin bologna, bloody chicken and cold grits in the north Alabama county's jail.

"He makes money by failing to spend the allocated funds for food for the inmates," Clemon ruled after a daylong hearing in a lawsuit filed by prisoners over jail conditions.

Clemon said Bartlett, who was found in contempt of court after more than six years as sheriff, would remain in custody until he submitted a plan to feed prisoners meals that are "nutritionally adequate," as required by a previous agreement in the lawsuit.

'Extraordinary' arrest
Bartlett's lawyer, Donald Rhea, said he submitted a proposal to Clemon within a couple of hours of the sheriff's arrest. But the judge didn't immediately enter an order freeing Bartlett, who Rhea said would be taken to his own jail, at least initially.

Bartlett looked stunned as Clemon ordered him into custody. A lawyer for prisoners called his arrest "extraordinary."

"I was shocked by the amount of money he pocketed ... all while men and women in the jail go hungry," said Melanie Velez of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.

Sheriffs in 55 of Alabama's 67 counties operate under a Depression-era system allowing them to make money operating their jail kitchens. The state pays sheriffs $1.75 a day for each prisoner they house and lets the elected officers keep any profits they can generate. Bartlett said he also received money from the county and the U.S. government for housing federal prisoners.

Clemon's order dealt only with Morgan County, but the longtime head of the Alabama Sheriff's Association said its impact will be felt around the state since counties lack money to feed prisoners and state budgets are stretched thin.

"It's going to be real far-reaching. It's going to affect a lot of counties other than this one," said association executive director Bobby Timmons.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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