Sheriff’s office joins lawsuit to keep jail food funds private

Published 10:20 pm Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Pike County Sheriff’s Office has joined a lawsuit seeking to keep records of the funding of jail feeding programs from being released to the public.

The Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Center for Human Rights announced lawsuits against 49 sheriffs they say did not comply with public records requests seeking information about the food programs.

Pike County is one of those involved in the suit, which they have joined in with the Alabama Sheriff’s Association. Thomas said the account is personal, not public.

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The lawsuits stem from an Alabama law passed in 1939 that places the responsibility for feeding inmates on county sheriffs. Of Alabama’s 67 counties, 55 sheriffs are still responsible for their jails’ feeding programs while the others have since placed that responsibility elsewhere, including in the hands of their local county commissions.

The controversy over the law, which Thomas called “antiquated,” was stirred back up when Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin filed reports that showed he pocketed $750,000 from his jail food program over three years and subsequently purchased a $740,000 home in Orange Beach.

Critics have pointed out that some of the funding Entrekin kept was federal funding and claim it should have been handled differently than state funding. Pike County, alternatively, doesn’t house any federal inmates, and therefore does not receive any federal funding.

The state currently provides $1.75 per inmate per day to fund the program. Based on Thomas’ range of 45-65 inmates in the Pike County Jail on any given day, that means Pike County would receive somewhere between $2,500 and $3,500 a month.

Any remaining funding once the food has been purchased goes to the sheriff, after applicable state and local taxes are paid. If it is not enough to cover the expenses, the sheriff must pay out of pocket.

“When I started out (in office), I had to borrow money for several months to feed the inmates,” Thomas said. “The sheriff is tasked with the responsibility of feeding inmates even if there is a shortage of funding.”

Thomas said the department no longer has shortages of funding, but said that there is little excess revenue each month, if any. He said that the funding is enough to ensure the inmates are well-fed.

“Our jail administrator and cooks do a good job,” Thomas said. “They always order plenty of food and do a good job running it.”

Thomas said that he has been a proponent of shifting the responsibility to the county commission for years and plans to approach them again at their next meeting to ask them to handle the program.

“I’ll be asking the county commission to take over the food account,” Thomas said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to get rid of for a long time, especially now with it being so controversial … They can take it whenever. But as long as they don’t, it’s the sheriff’s responsibility.”

Commission chairman Robin Sullivan said he hasn’t looked into legal issues regarding whether the commission could run the fund, but said Thomas will be able to make his case to the commission.

Efforts to reach Allen Jones, county attorney, were unsuccessful but some county commissions in Alabama already run their county’s jail food funds.