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Human rights organizations file lawsuits against 49 Ala. sheriffs

The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights and Montgomery’s Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice are suing 49 Alabama sheriffs in an attempt to obtain financial records pertaining to the amount of money spent on food for inmates in jails they control.

A state law that allows sheriff’s departments to keep unspent taxpayer money from jail food funds has led to cases of sheriffs personally pocketing large sums and underfeeding inmates to increase the total amount.

In 2009, Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was jailed after testifying that he had kept taxpayer money “as personal income” around $212,000 over three years.

Famously, Bartlett spent $1,000 on a truckload of corn dogs, which he proceeded to feed to inmates twice daily for weeks.

Bartlett’s successor, Sheriff Ana Franklin, is currently embroiled in a legal battle amid allegations that she took $150,000 from the jail food fund to invest in a used-car dealership.

The lawsuit comes after four letters sent to the defendant sheriffs, including appeals to public record laws, asked for financial records pertaining to how taxpayer money intended for providing food to inmates was being used.

The lawsuit alleges that the named sheriff’s departments violated public record law by not providing the requested records.

Local sheriffs named include Butler County Sheriff Kenny Harden, Crenshaw County Sheriff Mickey Powell, and Lowndes County Sheriff John Williams, Sr.

Many sheriffs, including Harden, delegated the inquiries to Alabama Sheriff’s Association lawyer Donald R. Rhea.

Rhea appears to have responded by directing SCHR and Alabama Appleseed lawyers to the Alabama Department of Finance, which apparently has records on the amount of money given to counties for jail food funds, not the amounts spent or kept by individual sheriffs.

The lawsuit indicates that the Southern Center for Human Rights “frequently receives letters from people in jails in counties across Alabama… [reporting] food they are provided is inadequate in quantity or nutritional value, spoiled, or contaminated, such as with insect or rodent droppings, or foreign objects.”

SCHR attorney Aaron Littman says that he “does not know” of any reports to his organization emerging from the Butler County jail, reiterating that the lawsuit is an attempt to ascertain which sheriffs are converting food money to personal use.

“The public has a right to know,” said Littman, “…whether [a sheriff] has profited, and if so by how much.” 

Harden denied any wrongdoing, saying his jail’s menus are “approved by dieticians” and that inmates often gain weight while in the Butler County jail.

“We aren’t feeding anyone trucks of corn dogs,” said Harden, adding “I get my food from Merchant’s Food(service) and [The Department of Corrections.]”

Harden said that, although the law does state sheriffs can keep money left over from the jail food fund, there is none left for him to keep if he wanted to.

“Three months ago, my grocery bill was $6,000, and we brought in $4,300… and anything short, I have to pay out of my pocket,” said Harden. Alabama jails receive $1.75 per day per inmate for food, a decades-old practice.

“I think [the lawsuit] is a witch-hunt,” said Harden.

The lawsuit is filed with the circuit court in Hale County.