By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Recently, a lawsuit led primarily by Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights and joined by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, has garnered some provocative headlines while ignoring or distorting facts about specific county sheriffs’ use of funds provided to feed inmates held in county jails.
Under current law, in many of Alabama’s 67 counties, the county sheriff is responsible for providing meals to prisoners in their custody. A recent story in AL.com tells about how these sheriffs are allowed to keep money not used to feed prisoners in a fund that is at their discretion and can be used for personal expenses. What the story doesn’t report is that when there is not enough money to buy food for county-held inmates, it is their sheriff who must provide the meals out of his own pocket.
The same is true for county commissions that have chosen to supply food to prisoners rather than placing the burden on the sheriff. If there is not enough to pay for inmates’ meals, then the county must provide the money. If there is a surplus, then the county keeps the funds.
The suit filed in Greensboro, Ala., located in Hale County, asks that the court compel, “49 Alabama sheriffs for access to public records showing how sheriffs personally profit from funds allocated for feeding people in jail.”
A press release from the Southern Center for Human Rights states, “Many sheriffs in Alabama contend that a state law authorizing them to personally ‘keep and retain’ taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails permits them to take any amounts they do not spend on food as personal income.” They also claim, “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 statute merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes not to line their own pockets.”
The statute governing sheriffs feeding prisoners is covered by 14-6-40 through 50, and 36-22-17, according to the Alabama Law Institute and the dubious interpretations according to Southern Center for Human Rights seem to reside in some lawyers opinion of state code and not factually accurate.
Neither the state or national news reports, or those suing the state, seem to have a firm grasp of how the process works. In AL.com’s story, Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin is portrayed as a man who is benefiting by withholding food from inmates. What they failed to report is the time Sheriff Entrekin was forced to mortgage his house to feed convicts housed in the Etowah County Jail.
To the uninformed or those providing click-bait for their readers, the notion that sheriffs are profiting by denying prisoners food seems scandalous. And indeed, if that were true, it would be not only monstrous but also a serious breach of public trust that could be a crime.
According to Robert “Bobby” Timmons, the long-serving icon of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, county sheriffs providing food for prisoners goes back a hundred years or more. “There was a time when a sheriff and his family would live in the county jail,” said Timmons. It was common practice back then for the wife to cook meals for prisoners at the same time she was feeding her own family, according to Timmons.
Much like the 60s television series, The Andy Griffith Show, it was Aunt Bea who cooked for Otis and the others housed in the Mayberry jail. The tradition of a sheriff’s family living in the jail carried on in some counties up until 1980s, Timmons recalled.
Perhaps there is simply ignorance about how Alabama’s county jails are funded. According to the process, county jails are paid a certain fee for each inmate they house. If the jail is holding a federal prisoner, the federal government pays a fee for that prisoner’s food, shelter, etc. If it’s a county inmate, then the county commission pays. If the county sheriff is holding a state prisoner, it follows that the state pays for that inmate.
As Timmons points out, in small counties, there is just not enough money to pay for the inmates they house.
“Some counties can’t even pay attention right now, much less pay their bills,” said Timmons. “I mean, Wilcox County they can’t even pay their dues in the association cause they don’t have no money.”
Having served as head of the Sheriffs Association for 43 years, Timmons has seen it all, and he knows it all comes back to the fact that Alabama is a poor state that is unable or unwilling to pay for the thousands incarcerated across the state.
Currently, several counties have legislation to ease the burden that falls on their county sheriff and commission. Timmons, when speaking with APR, was reviewing legislation to address the county jail problems, but as Timmons says, it all comes back to money and who’s going to pay.
“No matter how bad they [prisoners] are, or how good they are, how innocent they are, or how guilty they are – we’ve still got to be paying for their needs,” said Timmons.
He believes there is a way to address the problems, “but what it is right now, I just don’t know.”
Sheriffs have recently taken beatings over the lawsuit and some erroneous reports on state law. Entrekin was accused of not turning over the records of how much money he has received from the prisoner food allowance.
Anyone who is the least bit knowledgable of Alabama’s reporting system knows a quick search for Entrekin’s Statement of Economic Interest at the Alabama Ethics Commission’s website will show his earnings.
But why let facts get in the way of a profitable lawsuit or a good story?
In full disclosure, my wife and I live part-time on our family farm in Etowah County. We have both met Entrekin on two occasions. Once, when we were applying for concealed carry gun permits, and once to gather information about the county’s detention center.