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 thesheriff, Greg Bartlett, did, to the tune of $212,000 over the lastthree years, despite a state food allowance of only $1.75 per prisonerper day.
In the view of a federal judge, who heard testimonyfrom the hungry inmates, the sheriff was in “blatant” violation of pastagreements that his prisoners be properly cared for.
“There wasundisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significantweight,” the judge, U. W. Clemon of Federal District Court inBirmingham, said Thursday in an interview. “I could not ignore them.”
Sothis week, Judge Clemon ordered Sheriff Bartlett himself jailed untilhe came up with a plan to adequately feed prisoners more, anyway, thana few spoonfuls of grits, part of an egg and a piece of toast atbreakfast, and bits of undercooked, bloody chicken at supper.
The shock in the courtroom on Wednesday was palpable: a sheriff wasgoing to jail — if, as it turns out, only for one night — because hisprisoners did not like the food. The world was upside down.
“You’re never going to satisfy any incarcerated individual,” grumbledthe head of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, Bobby Timmons. Besides,Mr. Timmons said, “an inmate is not in jail for singing too loud inchoir on Sunday.”
Melanie Velez, a lawyer for the SouthernCenter for Human Rights in Atlanta, which represents the inmates, tooka different position. “Our clients, all they want is sustenance,” Ms.Velez said. “They shouldn’t be punished by not being given adequatenutrition. After every meal, they are hungry.”
The sheriff’sdefenders, like Mr. Timmons, said Sheriff Bartlett, who told the courthis salary was about $64,000, was merely following the law — Alabamalaw.
“He has not violated any laws of the state of Alabama,” Mr.Timmons said. “Everything he has done is by the rules, including thefeeding allowance.”
But that was the whole problem, in JudgeClemon’s view. An unusual statute here dating from the early decades ofthe 20th century allows the state’s sheriffs to keep for themselveswhatever money is left over after they feed their prisoners. The moneyallotted by the state is little enough — $1.75 a day per prisoner — butthe incentive to skimp is obvious.
That is what the sheriff did,Judge Clemon found. As Mr. Bartlett’s wallet got fatter, according totestimony, the prisoners got thinner and thinner. One testified tolosing 30 pounds in the brick jail by the railroad tracks in this quietcourthouse town of clean and empty streets near the Tennessee border.
Thejudge expressed no regret about sending Mr. Bartlett to jail. TheAlabama law is “almost an invitation to criminality,” he said in theinterview. Sheriffs, he said, “have a direct pecuniary interest in notfeeding inmates.”
The practice is thought to go on in othercounties, though it is difficult to be certain, as sheriffs in Alabamaare notoriously unforthcoming about their finances.
“The sheriffhas a responsibility to feed his inmates, but he’s also got anincentive to line his own pocket,” said Ms. Velez, the human rightscenter lawyer. She said, “We were shocked to learn that the sheriff hadpocketed over $100,000.”
The inmates’ complaints came to lightbecause the jail, which holds about 300, was already under a federalconsent decree governing conditions there.
“Given the testimonyabout the fairly blatant violations of the consent decree, I knew of nomore efficient means of impressing on the sheriff the seriousness ofthe matter than by placing him in jail until he indicated a willingnessto comply,” the judge said.
Sheriff Bartlett was released fromjail on Thursday afternoon, after he submitted a plan that satisfiedthe 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.
After his release, Mr. Bartlett did not appear at his offices and couldnot be reached for comment. His lawyer did not return phone calls.
With precision and some wonder, Judge Clemon, who is retiring shortly,recounted a typical inmate lunch here: “Two peanut butter sandwiches,with small amounts of peanut butter, chips, and flavored water.” Hungerpains were not uncommon.
One inmate interviewed from the jail,William Draper, said he had lost 15 pounds since his incarceration onmarijuana trafficking charges in October. “Yeah, you stay hungry,” Mr.Draper said. “Hunger is something you live with.”
Inmates wereforced to supplement the meager meals with purchases at the high-pricedjail store, he said. “We have clients who are indigent who are very,very thin,” said Ms. Velez. Some spend as much as $100 a week at thestore, a severe burden for their often impoverished families.
“Ifyou can’t catch store, you’ll starve to death,” Mr. Draper said.Complaints, he said, were met with cold stares from the guards: “Theylook at you like, ‘you’ve got to deal with it,’ ” he said.
Mr.Draper said he was glad that someone in authority had finally listenedto his and others’ complaints. “If I’m going to be held accountable forbreaking the law, other people should be too,” he said.