A number of statutes and practices have created perverse incentives for law enforcement, but none are nearly so blatant as this Alabama state law governing the feeding of inmates. The law, passed over 100 years ago, says law enforcement personnel -- mainly sheriffs -- can keep whatever's left over from state and federal inmate food stipends. This doesn't mean the leftover money is routed to a general fund or used to defray law enforcement/jail-related expenses. No, this means the money flows from taxpayers, (mostly) bypasses prisoners, and ends up in sheriffs' personal checking accounts. (via Radley Balko)
This legalized skimming has resulted in the obvious: underfed inmates and sheriffs with overfed bank accounts. The law first received national attention in 2008, when Morgan County sheriff Greg Bartlett found himself in federal court, defending himself against a lawsuit brought by his prisoners. Inmates were dropping weight and going hungry while Bartlett increased his personal income by $212,000 over three years, taking home a great deal of the $1.75 per prisoner per day state funds. (Federal prisoners housed in state jails are allowed $3 per day, which can also be rerouted to sheriffs' checking accounts.)
This resulted in Bartlett spending one night in his own jail. Even then, Sheriff Bartlett was violating an earlier consent decree with the federal government, which ordered his office to use *all* food funds for feeding inmates. The agreement Bartlett reached with the court (after a night in jail) promised his office would do the same thing: spend all the funds on food, rather than diverting them for personal use.
Even with two consent decrees in place and a previous sheriff being hauled into court for personally profiting from inmates' hunger, another Morgan County sheriff (Ana Franklin) has repeated her predecessor's misdeeds.
At that hearing, the sheriff's attorneys are expected to argue that a years-old consent decree in a lawsuit against the county does not apply to Franklin and she shouldn't be held in contempt. The decree says the Morgan County Sheriff must spend all food funds on inmate meals. The decree was issued in 2009 after Franklin's predecessor was jailed for contempt. Former Sheriff Greg Bartlett was dubbed "Sheriff Corndog" because he profited more than $200,000 while inmates ate corndogs twice a day for weeks. The consent decree stemmed from a 2001 lawsuit against the county and then-Sheriff Steve Crabbe by inmates decrying conditions inside the jail.
A court hearing was scheduled last month when the Center filed a motion saying Franklin should show cause for why she shouldn't be held in contempt of the decree. The center argued that Franklin should have been held in contempt after removing $160,000 from the inmate food account. The sheriff loaned $150,000 of the money to a now-bankrupt, corrupt used car dealership, Priceville Partners, LLC, that was co-owned by Greg Steenson, a convicted felon.
Franklin is trying to convince the court she should be allowed to continue starving inmates and financing criminal business ventures. While Sheriff Franklin was helping prop up local
business corruption, inmates were dealing with this reality:
The [Southern Center for Human Rights] is arguing Franklin should not be allowed to keep any of the food funds and has included in court documents statements from inmates who describe inadequate food portions and unappetizing or hazardous servings. Inmates reported finding rocks, a nail and mold in food served at the jail.
"Many grievances note that entire cell blocks were fed reduced or watered-down portions -- a tiny amount of soup, a spoonful of grits, five or six green beans or carrot slices as a vegetable serving, a sandwich with half of a slice of cheese on it, and the like -- because the kitchen lacked enough food to serve everyone the portions listed on the menu," according to court records filed by the Center.
Starving prisoners to fund personal business ventures isn't the only thing Sheriff Franklin's accused of doing, though. A longtime critic of Franklin -- blogger/business owner Glenda Lockhart -- has also filed a lawsuit against the sheriff, alleging a number of constitutional violations.
The lawsuit accuses Franklin of illegally obtaining information to convince a judge to issue a search warrant for Lockhart's home and business. Franklin has said her office seized computers and various other devices during an investigation into fired jail warden Leon Bradley, who has been accused of leaking documents to Lockhart for publication on the blog.
Lockhart's blog was where Sheriff Franklin's payments to the corrupt car dealership first appeared. In apparent retaliation, the sheriff allegedly engaged in some incredibly underhanded -- and illegal -- tactics in her attempt to obtain the blogger's personal communications.
Lockhart claims Franklin illegally gathered information for a search warrant by paying an informant to break-in, hack and steal data from her home and business offices. Lockhart owns Straightline Drywall and Acoustical, LLC in Falkville.
The informant, Lockhart's grandson Daniel, said in a sworn statement that he was paid to install keylogger software on his grandmother's computer. The software, he said, was provided by the sheriff's office, according to a transcript from a November 2016 deposition.
Daniel Lockhart's statement also said the sheriff told him she was only interested in going after the former warden who was leaking documents and that Daniel's grandmother wouldn't be targeted. His statement also points out he was paid directly by the sheriff and one of her deputies a total of $500 to perform this "investigative" work for them.
There appears to be corruption all over the place in Morgan County, Alabama. But it all starts with a bad law state lawmakers are in no hurry to take off the books. Despite multiple federal lawsuits stemming from sheriffs' starve-and-skim tactics, the incredibly perverse incentive remains intact. There are probably plenty of taxpayers who don't like the idea of their money being used to food and house convicted criminals, but I doubt any of those taxpayers are happier knowing they're padding sheriffs' bank accounts and investing in shady businesses.
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