In a letter sent yesterday to the United States Attorneys for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Alabama, the Southern Center for Human Rights, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Adelante Alabama Worker Center, the American Conservative Union, and FreedomWorks urged an investigation into Alabama sheriffs with federal detention contracts who have personally pocketed substantial amounts of taxpayer money from jail food accounts, in likely violation of federal law.
Many sheriffs in Alabama contend that state law permits them to keep funds allocated to feed people housed in their jails for their own personal profit, and some have taken tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal use. This interpretation of Alabama law has, however, been rejected by the Attorney General and the current Governor of Alabama. A number of these sheriffs house federal detainees (either defendants in federal criminal cases or immigrants facing deportation) in their county jails, pursuant to contracts with the United States Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sheriffs with lucrative federal detention contracts have the potential to profit especially handsomely from this practice, and there is reason to believe that some have pocketed these federal funds for personal use.
In Monroe County, Alabama, for example, the per capita reimbursement rate for feeding state prisoners is $1.80 per day. For federal prisoners, it is over five times higher: $10 per day. In 2016, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office received a total of $26,710.80 in food funds from the State of Alabama, $5,505.00 in food funds from municipal contracts, and $108,620.00 in food funds from the federal detention contract. On December 30, 2016, the sheriff “declared excess and paid to” himself $44,402.77 – over $12,000 more than the total amount he had received from state and municipal sources, combined.
“The law is clear, and Governor Ivey has made clear: jail food funds are public funds, and should be used exclusively for feeding incarcerated people,” said Aaron Littman, staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Because these sheriffs have refused to disclose to the public how much taxpayer money they have taken, further investigation is urgently required to determine whether they are violating federal criminal and contracting law.”
“Diverting funds provided to feed prisoners is not only unethical, it is likely illegal,” said David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union. “A fundamental requirement of federal contractors is to use the money for the purposes for which it was given. In this case, the avarice of some Alabama sheriffs doesn’t pass the smell test. The stench should be investigated by those charged with protecting America’s taxpayers.”
When limited food funds are misappropriated by sheriffs, the health and safety of the people incarcerated in their jails is jeopardized. Recent media coverage of the food served at the Etowah County Detention Center included reports that inmates are frequently served meat packaged in wrapping that says “Not Fit For Human Consumption,” and donated chicken that is rotten and riddled with “tumors and abscesses and deformities.”
“It appears that some sheriffs have placed personal profit above their sworn duty to meet the basic needs of those in their care,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We are deeply concerned that those charged with enforcing our laws are instead breaking them. No one is above the law – this includes Alabama’s sheriffs.”
“The people in these sheriffs’ custody are human beings, not abstract profit margins,” said Jessica Vosburgh, executive and legal director of Adelante. “As long as their jailers see each person behind bars as an opportunity to reap additional profits with impunity, the incentives to cut corners in ways that threaten these individuals’ basic safety will abound. Taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill with our wallets, and detained persons with their health, their wellbeing, and sometimes even their lives.”
The letter can be found here.