Neither the Alabama Sheriffs Association nor the state attorney general’s office offered any response Monday to allegations from civil rights lawyers about abuse of funds meant to feed those locked up in county jails.
The Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs 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.
The lawyers said in a news release Monday that many Alabama sheriffs exploit a state law authorizing them to personally “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails, taking the position it permits them to take any amounts they do not spend on food as personal income.
“This archaic system is based on a dubious interpretation of state law that has been rejected by two different attorneys general of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes, not to line their own pockets,” Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said in the news release. “It also raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail.”
The lawyers said they sent letters requesting copies of financial records showing how much each sheriff has kept for personal use in an effort to learn which sheriffs across the state have taken taxpayers’ money from jail food funds, and by how much they have profited. “Although certain sheriffs have responded in compliance with Alabama’s open records law, 49 sheriffs have refused for nearly half a year to comply with their clear obligations to produce the records, claiming instead that these documents are personal,” the lawyers said.
“The public has a right to know whether sheriffs are meeting the basic human needs of incarcerated people in their care, or are instead filling their personal coffers,” Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, said in the news release. “The Alabama Public Records Law exists so that we can hold our government accountable. Unfortunately, a number of sheriffs have decided that our public records law does not apply to them.”
The Southern Center for Human Rights has received reports from people in Alabama jails that they are being provided inadequate or unhealthy meals or food that is spoiled or contaminated, the lawyers said.
A former sheriff was held in contempt and jailed by a federal judge after he purchased half of an 18-wheeler load of corn dogs for $500 and fed them to inmates at every meal, the civil rights groups said. They alleged some sheriffs have pocketed substantial amounts of money, although they acknowledged the amounts are unknown because the sheriffs are not required to report the income on state financial disclosure forms.
“One sheriff who did make such a report took more than $250,000 in ‘compensation’ from ‘food provisions’ in both 2016 and 2015, the lawyers said. “Another sheriff was held in contempt of a federal court in 2017 after removing $160,000 from the jail food account and investing it in a used car dealership.”
The lawsuit was filed in Hale County Circuit Court. The organizations, represented by attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights and Jake Watson and Rebekah Keith McKinney of Huntsville, seek an order from the court that the records they have requested are public and that the defendant sheriffs must produce them. They have requested that their suit be consolidated with a related case filed by Sheriff Kenneth Ellis which is currently pending before the same court and involves the same question of public access to information about how sheriffs profit from jail food funds.
A spokesman for Attorney General Steve Marshall said by email Monday, “In response to your inquiry today concerning a contact for Alabama sheriffs, the Alabama Attorney General’s Office does not speak for the state’s sheriffs. I would instead refer you to the Alabama Sheriff’s Association.”
A staff member at the association said Executive Director Bobby Timmons would be the person to respond. But Timmons could not be reached.