Sheriffs look to change jail food law

Published 2:25 pm Wednesday, January 14, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Alabama sheriffs would quit pocketing surplus jail food money in exchange for a pay increase under a proposal drawn up after a north Alabama sheriff was sent to prison for one night for serving small portions and keeping the leftover grocery money.

Bobby Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, said Wednesday the night that Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett spent in prison persuaded many of his fellow sheriffs that changes are needed. On Tuesday, 47 of Alabama’s 67 sheriffs met with Timmons to work on a plan to present to the Legislature in February.

Their plan, which is still being designed, would end the ability of sheriffs to pocket as personal income any leftover food money, and it would raise their salaries to make up for the lost income.

That doesn’t sit well with county commissions, which pay sheriffs’ salaries.

“We are absolutely opposed to that unless they fund it,” said O.H. “Buddy” Sharpless, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

The state government provides $1.75 per day to counties to feed of each inmate in the county jail. In 55 counties, the funds go to the county sheriff, who can keep any leftover money. But if the $1.75 is not enough, the sheriff has to come up with extra money, Timmons said.

In the other 12 counties, the money goes into the county treasury, with the county keeping any leftover money or making up for any extra costs.

On Jan. 7, Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett testified in federal court that he made $212,000 over three years with surplus funds used to feed prisoners. Inmates testified that they were fed so little, their families had to send them money to buy food from the jail store.

U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon sent the sheriff to jail for one night until he came up with a plan to provide inmates with “nutritionally adequate” meals. The sheriff agreed to spend the full $1.75 on food.

Timmons said the sheriffs’ association will likely ask the Legislature to keep the food money flowing to sheriffs. But any leftover money will have to stay in a sheriff’s jail food account. And if the fund runs short, the county commission will have to cover it rather than the sheriff.

In return for losing the food income, sheriffs will ask the Legislature to raise their minimum pay, which is currently $50,000 for all but two counties, Timmons said. They haven’t settled on an amount.

Bartlett’s salary is $64,000.

Timmons said sheriffs are able to feed inmates on $1.75 because they don’t have to abide by the state bid law, like county commissions do. The sheriffs can strike deals with local farmers or get surpluses from grocery stores and food processors. In 12 counties that do it differently, the cost is often more than $1.75 per day because state law doesn’t give county commissions the same flexibility that sheriffs have, he said.

Sharpless said county commissions don’t want to become responsible because sheriffs will have no impetus to look for bargains.

“If the sheriffs aren’t pocketing the money, there isn’t going to be a surplus,” he said.

No matter what happens, Timmons expects inmates to keep complaining about jail food.

“You cannot satisfy an incarcerated individual,” he said. “They are not in there for singing too loud in the choir on Sunday.”