Friday, January 09, 2009

Alabama Sheriff Starves Inmates

In the category of WTF:

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 the sheriff, Greg Bartlett, did, to the tune of $212,000 over the last three years, despite a state food allowance of only $1.75 per prisoner per day.

In the view of a federal judge, who heard testimony from the hungry inmates, the sheriff was in “blatant” violation of past agreements that his prisoners be properly cared for.

“There was undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight,” the judge, U. W. Clemon of Federal District Court in Birmingham, said Thursday in an interview. “I could not ignore them.”

The sheriff’s defenders, like Mr. Timmons, said Sheriff Bartlett, who told the court his salary was about $64,000, was merely following the law — Alabama law.

“He has not violated any laws of the state of Alabama,” Mr. Timmons said. “Everything he has done is by the rules, including the feeding allowance.”

But that was the whole problem, in Judge Clemon’s view. An unusual statute here dating from the early decades of the 20th century allows the state’s sheriffs to keep for themselves whatever money is left over after they feed their prisoners. The money allotted by the state is little enough — $1.75 a day per prisoner — but the incentive to skimp is obvious.

That is what the sheriff did, Judge Clemon found. As Mr. Bartlett’s wallet got fatter, according to testimony, the prisoners got thinner and thinner. One testified to losing 30 pounds in the brick jail by the railroad tracks in this quiet courthouse town of clean and empty streets near the Tennessee border.

The judge expressed no regret about sending Mr. Bartlett to jail. The Alabama law is “almost an invitation to criminality,” he said in the interview. Sheriffs, he said, “have a direct pecuniary interest in not feeding inmates.”

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.” Hunger pains were not uncommon.

One inmate interviewed from the jail, William Draper, said he had lost 15 pounds since his incarceration on marijuana trafficking charges in October. “Yeah, you stay hungry,” Mr. Draper said. “Hunger is something you live with.”

Inmates were forced to supplement the meager meals with purchases at the high-priced jail 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 the store, a severe burden for their often impoverished families.

“If you can’t catch store, you’ll starve to death,” Mr. Draper said. Complaints, he said, were met with cold stares from the guards: “They look at you like, ‘you’ve got to deal with it,’ ” he said.

I don't want to hear any nonsense about how these guys are criminals and aren't entitled to a decent meal. We don't starve people in this country for being convicted of a crime, and I can't believe any state in America, even Alabama, thinks its okay for a public official to keep for himself money that is allocated for the service he oversees. And I couldn't care less that it was "legal" (if a violation of these prisoner's constitutional rights); what this guy did was wrong, and he knew it.

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