In January, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records indicating whether they personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in Alabama county jails.
Sheriffs in Alabama contend that a state law permits them to “keep and retain” as personal income money provided for feeding people in their jails that they do not actually spend on food.
One sheriff, Todd Entrekin from Etowah County, has kept more than $750,000 allocated over three years to feed inmates. He recently purchased a $740,000 beach house with his wife.
Entrekin’s abuses, and the abuses of other Alabama sheriffs, were revealed as a result of the public record lawsuits. “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,” Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights said in a January press release. “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.”
“Everything that I have done is in full compliance with the law,” said Entrekin according to AL.com. “As I proved with documentation ... former District Attorney and Attorney General opinions have clarified that I am in full compliance.”
According to NPR, Alabama’s controversial system hearkens back to a different era, when county jails were more of a mom and pop operation and feeding inmates were often the responsibility of a sheriff’s wife.
That archaic practice continues today in Alabama. Sheriffs are personally responsible for feeding inmates in their jails and receive funds to cover the cost. For state inmates, it’s less than $2 per inmate per day; for county, city or federal inmates, the amount can be higher.
If sheriffs feed inmates on less than the allotted amount, they can keep whatever is left over. This process is deeply woven into the rural traditions of Alabama law. When Entrekin’s predecessor died while still in office, all the money in the food account went to his estate — as state law dictated, reported NPR.
Entrekin’s jail also housed hundreds of U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement detainees through a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service. Although Entrekin may have been in compliance with state law does he have a potential problem with the Federal government?
Margot Schlenger, a University of Michigan Law School professor and former head of civil rights for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the way Entrekin spent the inmate food funds is likely illegal under federal law.
“If it’s the case that the sheriff is profiting financially from providing substandard food to detainees, that would violate both the contract and ICE’s standards and the Constitution,” she told AL.com.
Entrekin has another problem. He was running for reelection. He used some all too familiar campaign rhetoric according to the Washington Post. Entrekin, a Republican, played the victim, assailing the “liberal media” and lambasting the “miscellaneous fake news stories” that he said had made his family into targets.
On Tuesday, he was voted out of office after losing in the primary by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.
Entrekin got caught with his hand in the “food” jar and now he is out of a $93,000 a year job, and possibly the focus of a federal investigation.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.