News & Politics

This Disgusting Scheme to Enrich Cops by Starving Prisoners May Soon Be Scuttled

Alabama’s sheriffs have been getting rich off of prisoners for decades thanks to pre-World War II statutory language.

Photo Credit: CBS 42

Alabama’s sheriffs have been getting rich off of prisoners for decades thanks to purportedly ambiguous pre-World War II statutory language that lets them keep “excess” food funds. With that distorted incentive to keep expenditures low, sheriffs have been subjecting prisoners to sustenance that ranges from unappetizing to inadequate to unsafe.

Now, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey is trying to put a stop to that practice with a memo to the state comptroller. “Public funds should be used for public purposes—it’s that simple,” Ivey said.

Ivey’s memo was likely inspired by the Southern Center for Human Rights’s move to gather information about the sheriffs’ use of funds and develop a legal challenge. They have a strong argument, after all:

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“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,” said Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “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.”

Given context, you’d think Ivey’s move would be celebrated, the practice retired without a fight. Sheriffs have resorted to extreme, facially unacceptable tactics, now well known. On one notable occasion, two sheriffs split an 18-wheeler full of corndogs, purchased at the bargain price of $1,000 total, and one fed prisoners corndogs three times as day for a month. Unsurprisingly, federal courts have taken action against several of these sheriffs.

Yet, Ivey’s success isn’t certain. As Littman notes, Ivey’s isn’t the first attempt by a state official to put an end to sheriffs’ abuse of state funds and attendant mistreatment of prisoners. When exposed, sheriffs have vocally defended their practices.

Consider this statement from former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who misappropriated at least $750,000:

"The law says it's a personal account and that's the way I've always done it and that's the way the law reads and that's the way I do business," [Entrekin] said in a phone interview Friday. "That's the way the law's written."

Of course, Alabama sheriffs face another form of accountability: elections. After news of his $750,000 grab—and $740,000 beach house—broke, Entrekin was voted out of office by a two-to-one margin.