Food costs up, state food reimbursements stay the same

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 13, 2008

LINDEN &8212; A law dating back to 1927 requires the state to pay $1.75 a day per inmate to pay for meals, but with rising food costs that amount may be stretched even further than in the past.

According to Marengo County Sheriff Jesse Langley, rising costs are definitely a concern at the county&8217;s 118-bed facility in Linden. With approximately 75 inmates in custody at any given time, the food bill can add up quickly.

That&8217;s because the state corrections system makes sheriffs personally liable for budget shortfalls and, possibly, lawsuits over jail food. On the other hand, the law also states sheriffs can pocket any remaining money not used food for inmates.

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Most of Alabama&8217;s counties still operate under this $1.75-a-day allowance, and there have even been accusations that sheriffs have made the jail food system very profitable at prisoners&8217; expense.

The head of the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, Ron Jones, said state auditors cannot determine how much some sheriffs are making off the system because the lawmen put the money in personal accounts.

In Morgan County, which includes Decatur, a state audit found Sheriff Greg Bartlett spent $163,991 feeding inmates and personally received an additional $103,947 for two years ending in May 2005. But Jones said there was no way for auditors to determine how much of the money that went to the sheriff was profit, because sheriffs may be buying food out of their own pockets.

When Etowah County Sheriff James Hayes died in October, thousands of dollars in jail food money went to his estate because it was kept in his personal accounts. His successor, Todd Entrekin, said he and his wife took out a personal loan for $150,000 the day he took office to purchase jail food until his first state payment came through.

But for Langley, the $1.75 a day reimbursement from the state is always a matter of crunching the numbers. When asked whether he or any of his colleagues have tried to have the number increased, Langley said he was doubtful the system would change.

The language of the law says the state can pay up to $3 a day per inmate, but the usual amount dispersed to the jails remains steady at $1.75 a day. By comparison, the government pays schools $2.47 for serving a single free meal under the National School Lunch Program for low-income students.

But Langley has been able to get a local bill passed to have a program to supplement the food offered in the detention center. For the last year, the county jail has offered a commissary program where inmates can purchase snack items such as chips and candy bars.

But more than a food program, Langley said the commissary is often used as a means of discipline, to reward inmates who have been on good behavior and to punish those who have been uncooperative.

Already the federal government requires that inmates be allowed to have television, but Langley said as a basic practice, they can regulate which channels inmates have access to.

While the commissary has been a positive addition to the detention center, Langley said the key to maintaining food costs at the jail will be a simple matter of good purchasing practices.

Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves contributed to this report.