As His Inmates Grew Thinner, a Sheriff’s Wallet Grew Fatter
New York Times
January 8, 2009
DECATUR, Ala. " The prisoners in the Morgan County jail here were always hungry. The sheriff, meanwhile, was getting a little richer. Alabama law allowed it: the chief lawman could go light on prisoners’ meals and pocket the leftover change.
And that is just what the sheriff, Greg Bartlett, did, to the tune of $212,000 over the last three years, despite a state food allowance of only $1.75 per prisoner per day.
In the view of a federal judge, who heard testimony from the hungry inmates, the sheriff was in “blatant” violation of past agreements that his prisoners be properly cared for.
“There was undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight,” the judge, U. W. Clemon of Federal District Court in Birmingham, said Thursday in an interview. “I could not ignore them.”
So this week, Judge Clemon ordered Sheriff Bartlett himself jailed until he came up with a plan to adequately feed prisoners more, anyway, than a few spoonfuls of grits, part of an egg and a piece of toast at breakfast, and bits of undercooked, bloody chicken at supper.
The sheriff’s defenders, like Mr. Timmons, said Sheriff Bartlett, who told the court his salary was about $64,000, was merely following the law " Alabama law.
“He has not violated any laws of the state of Alabama,” Mr. Timmons said. “Everything he has done is by the rules, including the feeding allowance.”
But that was the whole problem, in Judge Clemon’s view. An unusual statute here dating from the early decades of the 20th century allows the state’s sheriffs to keep for themselves whatever money is left over after they feed their prisoners. The money allotted by the state is little enough " $1.75 a day per prisoner " but the incentive to skimp is obvious.
That is what the sheriff did, Judge Clemon found. As Mr. Bartlett’s wallet got fatter, according to testimony, the prisoners got thinner and thinner. One testified to losing 30 pounds in the brick jail by the railroad tracks in this quiet courthouse town of clean and empty streets near the Tennessee border.
The judge expressed no regret about sending Mr. Bartlett to jail. The Alabama law is “almost an invitation to criminality,” he said in the interview. Sheriffs, he said, “have a direct pecuniary interest in not feeding inmates.”
The practice is thought to go on in other counties, though it is difficult to be certain, as sheriffs in Alabama are notoriously unforthcoming about their finances.
“Given the testimony about the fairly blatant violations of the consent decree, I knew of no more efficient means of impressing on the sheriff the seriousness of the matter than by placing him in jail until he indicated a willingness to comply,” the judge said.
Sheriff Bartlett was released from jail on Thursday afternoon, after he submitted a plan that satisfied the judge. He will now spend all the food money solely on food and will “no longer keep any funds for his personal use,” Judge Clemon said.