An Alabama sheriff imprisoned after admitting he legally pocketed about $210,000 from his jail kitchen while providing skimpy meals to inmates agreed to give up future profits from the operation, a judge said Friday.
An order from U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon shows that Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett has promised to use all government funding he receives for food to actually feed prisoners in the county lockup, which holds about 300 men and women.
That’s a change from the past, when Bartlett — like other Alabama sheriffs — kept any profits generated by the kitchen under a state law dating to the 1920s.
Aside from forgoing the money, Clemon’s order said Bartlett promised to follow USDA guidelines and provide inmates with meals that include fresh fruit and milk: two items prisoners said they rarely or never received in the past.
Clemon jailed Bartlett overnight this week in a federal prison after ruling he purposely fed prisoners inadequately to maximize his personal profits under Alabama’s unusual feeding system.
Clemon called windfalls under the law “reprehensible,” but he stopped short of addressing whether it violated the constitutional rights of prisoners.
A lawyer for inmates said she hoped the decision would lead to better meals in the Morgan County Jail and changes in the law statewide.
“We hope this will encourage the Legislature to revisit the statute that allows sheriffs to keep profits from feeding inmates,” said attorney Melanie Velez of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.
Bartlett issued a statement Friday saying he had received only 15 complaints about food after serving almost 330,000 meals in 2008. He speculated that some of the complaining inmates might have been shorted by other inmates serving them.
He also said sheriffs can lose money under the jail food funding system.
“I agree that on the surface, Alabama state law on the feeding system is hard to understand and to defend,” he said. “If a sheriff makes $4,000 or $1 in a month’s time it’s called starving inmates, if an inmate gains weight it’s called wasting tax payer dollars feeding criminals that murdered, robbed, raped and molested the citizens of our community.”
Because Alabama’s law makes sheriffs responsible for feeding inmates, rather than the counties where they work, some have to pay out of pocket to cover shortfalls.
An Associated Press review last year found that sheriffs in 55 of Alabama’s 67 counties operate under a Depression-era system that allows them to make money operating their jail kitchens.
Several sheriffs who agreed to speak to AP about their feeding operations said they were receiving small profits from the system, but none would disclose an exact amount.
Bartlett testified that he pocketed some $212,000 in kitchen profits over the last three years, reporting the money as income on his personal tax returns. Bartlett’s profit margin last year was about 50 percent, based on his testimony.
“That’s just an astronomical amount of money for a county,” said Velez, the lawyer for prisoners.
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 and some other sheriffs also receive a smaller state supplement, money from their counties and payments from the U.S. government for housing federal prisoners.
Clemon reviewed practices in Morgan County because of a 2001 settlement in a federal lawsuit over conditions in the jail. In that agreement, the jail is required to provide prisoners with “nutritionally adequate” meals — something Clemon said Bartlett had failed to do.
The judge’s order dealt only with Morgan County, but the head of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, Bobby Timmons, said the case could have a statewide impact on jailhouse practices.
In his decision, Clemon said Morgan County would be responsible for any shortfall if the jail kitchen begins operating at a deficit.