DECATUR, Ala. — A northern Alabama sheriff was in federal custody Thursday after a judge ruled he purposely fed inmates skimpy meals so he could make money from an unusual system that lets sheriffs turn a profit on their jail kitchens.
Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett testified at a Wednesday courthearing that he made $212,000 over three years by cheaply feedingprisoners — every cent of it legal under a Depression-era state law andreported on his tax forms as income.
But U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon ordered federal marshals to arrestBartlett after hearing a string of skinny prisoners testify they wereserved paper-thin bologna, bloody chicken and cold grits in the northAlabama county's jail.
"He makes money by failing to spend the allocated funds for food forthe inmates," Clemon ruled after a daylong hearing in a lawsuit filedby prisoners over jail conditions.
Clemon said Bartlett, who has been sheriff for six years, would remainin custody until he submitted a plan to feed prisoners meals that are"nutritionally adequate," as required by a previous agreement in thelawsuit.
Ten prisoners testified that they were so hungry after meals they areforced to spend hundreds of dollars at a for-profit store inside thejail for junk food like oatmeal pies and chips.
"We had an apple on Christmas, and I think we've had them one othertime," said Clifton Goodwin, who's been in Bartlett's jail for 15months.
Alice Hines, who has two sons in the jail on drug charges, said shegives them all the money she can — $50 sometimes, $100 others — to buyfood from the jail store so they won't go hungry. Prisoners are evenforced to buy basics like salt, pepper and ketchup to spice up blandmeals.
"You're supposed to pay for your crime, but good God, feed them," said Hines.
Bartlett's lawyer, Donald Rhea, said the sheriff would be incarceratedin his own jail, but the department declined comment on Bartlett'swhereabouts. The U.S. marshal's service did not immediately return amessage seeking comment.
Bartlett looked stunned as Clemon ordered him into custody. A lawyer for prisoners called his arrest "extraordinary."
"I was shocked by the amount of money he pocketed ... all while men andwomen in the jail go hungry," said Melanie Velez of the Atlanta-basedSouthern Center for Human Rights.
Sheriffs in 55 of Alabama's 67 counties operate under a Depression-erasystem allowing them to make money operating their jail kitchens. Thestate pays sheriffs $1.75 a day for each prisoner they house and letsthe elected officers keep any profits they can generate. Bartlett saidhe also received money from the county and the U.S. government forhousing federal prisoners.
According to testimony, Alabama's ethics commission cleared Bartlett ofa complaint in December, turning aside allegations that he improperlyused his office for personal gain by profiting from inmate meals. Theethics commission cited the state law allowing the practice and aprevious legal opinion from Alabama's attorney general.
Clemon's order dealt only with Morgan County, but the longtime head ofthe Alabama Sheriff's Association said its impact will be felt aroundthe state since counties lack money to feed prisoners and state budgetsare stretched thin.
"It's going to be real far-reaching. It's going to affect a lot ofcounties other than this one," said association executive directorBobby Timmons.
Bartlett testified he made a $212,000 profit over the last three yearsto supplement his annual salary of about $64,000. Bartlett said lastyear's profit was $95,000 — almost half of the total jail feedingbudget of about $203,000 for about 300 prisoners. Bartlett said profitsfrom the jail store are used to pay for equipment and training anddon't go into his pocket.
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To view the sheriff's proposal and court order, click here.
To view the findings of fact, click here.