Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fed up with Legislature's jail food law

(Originally published 1/10/09)

Did you hear the one about the Alabama sheriff who was locked in his own jail because the food was so bad?

Unfortunately, it isn’t a joke.

Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett spent about 18 hours in county lockup Wednesday and Thursday after U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon found that Bartlett had failed to abide by a 2001 directive to provide more adequate meals for inmates.

Morgan County’s nutrition consultant testified that the food on the menu was adequate for the prisoners. But The Huntsville Times reports that Bartlett admitted to modifying and making substitutions in the jail's typical weekly menu, which is designed to provide between 2,500 and 3,100 calories a day.

In one instance, the sheriff got a good deal on corn dogs, buying an 18-wheeler load of them for $500. Inmates ate the fair food every day for months.

Actually, I don't mind that arrangement. This is jail, after all, and food variety isn't part of the deal.

My problem is with the incentive that drove the corn dog purchase.

The state provides counties with jail food funds of $1.75 per inmate, per day. That isn't a lot for one meal, let alone three. But since 2006, Bartlett has fed prisoners for even less.

The balance (or "leftovers," for those of you with dark humor) amounted to $212,000 -– and Bartlett took it home.

Now, before you get all outraged at the sheriff, consider this: It's legal, thanks to your Alabama Legislature.

Bartlett was jailed for the quality of the food, not for making money off the arrangement. That's because a 1939 state law allows sheriffs in 55 of Alabama's 67 counties to keep the money that's left after the inmates are fed.

Given the cost of food these days, I suspect that Bartlett's cash cow is unique. I would guess that more sheriffs are struggling to meet their obligations with $1.75 per inmate per day than are walking home with what amounts to six-figure bonuses.

But even if inmates aren't being systematically underfed to pad the pockets of their jailers, the principle behind the law that allows it remains a problem.

Legislators who wrote this law probably considered it an incentive for law enforcement officials to be frugal with taxpayers' dollars. (Either that, or a bunch of them later became sheriffs.)

But those are still taxpayers' dollars, regardless of whether they're spent for their intended purpose. If sheriffs can meet their obligations with less than what the state provides, the remainder should be redirected to some other public need. And considering the sorry state of public funding these days, there are plenty of worthy public needs.

In his get-out-of-jail agreement with Clemon, Bartlett agreed to use all the money he receives to feed prisoners for that exclusive purpose. But this overreaching heavy-handedness holds Morgan County to a different standard than the rest of the state.

Lawmakers can easily fix this in the coming legislative session by simply requiring either the return of remainder funds to the state or their reinvestment into local law enforcement budgets.

If they fail to do so, the joke will be on us.

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