A federal judge ordered an Alabama sheriff locked up in his own jail Wednesday after holding him in contempt for failing to adequately feed inmates while profiting from the skimpy meals.
U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon had court security arrest Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett after dramatic testimony from skinny prisoners about paper-thin bologna and cold grits. The hearing offered a rare look into Alabama's unusual practice of letting sheriffs pocket money left over from feeding inmates.
The sheriff, who showed no emotion when his arrest was ordered, had testified that he legally kept as personal income about $212,000 over three years with surplus meal money but denied that inmates were improperly fed.
Clemon, however, said the sheriff would be jailed until he comes up with a plan to provide the 300 jail inmates with nutritionally adequate meals, as required by a 2001 court order.
Defense attorney Donald Rhead said Wednesday night that he faxed Clemon a proposal and hopes Bartlett will be quickly released. The sheriff had no comment as he was led from the courtroom.
Clemon said the Alabama law allowing sheriffs to take home surplus meal money is "probably unconstitutional," but his ruling was limited to the finding that the court order was violated. It didn't address whether the law should be overturned.
"He makes money by failing to spend the allocated funds for food for inmates," Clemon said.
An attorney representing the inmates, Melanie Velez of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, called Clemon's order to take the sheriff into custody "extraordinary." She said she was shocked to learn how much meal money Bartlett was taking home.
Sheriffs in 55 of Alabama's 67 counties operate under the system allowing them to make money operating their jail kitchens. The law pays sheriffs $1.75 a day for each prisoner they house and lets the elected officers pocket any profit they can generate.
The law doesn't require the leftover money to be spent at the jail or within the department; sheriffs can keep it as personal income. They historically have provided little information about profits under the practice that dates back to the Depression.
At the hearing, 10 prisoners told Clemon meals are so small that they're forced to buy snacks from a for-profit store the jailers operate. Most of the inmates appeared thin, with baggy jail coveralls hanging off their frames.
Some testified they spent hundreds of dollars a month at the store, which Bartlett said generates profits used for training and equipment.
Inmates told of getting half an egg, a spoonful of oatmeal and one piece of toast most days at their 3 a.m. daily breakfast. Lunch is usually a handful of chips and two sandwiches with barely enough peanut butter to taste.
"It looks like it was sprayed on with an aerosol can," testified Demetrius Hines, adding he's lost at least 35 pounds in five months since his arrest on drug charges.
Most prisoners said they supplement the meals by spending $20 a week or more on chips, oatmeal pies and other junk food at the jailhouse store.
But Sheriff Bartlett testified that he monitors the jail kitchen and occasionally eats there. He said he's certain he's meeting nutrition requirements under the settlement of a federal lawsuit regarding conditions at the jail.
Two nutritionists testifying on behalf of the sheriff said the jailhouse menu was proper, and they said some prisoners gain weight in jail.
Bartlett said he made about $95,000 last year feeding inmates after also receiving money from the county and the U.S. government for housing federal prisoners. Despite rising food costs, Bartlett said he made a $62,000 profit in 2007 and $55,000 in 2006.
Bartlett said he uses donations and special deals to make money. As an example, Bartlett said he and a neighboring sheriff recently split the $1,000 cost for an 18-wheeler full of corn dogs.
Prisoners testified they ate corn dogs twice a day for weeks.
Prisoners said they are almost always hungry after meals in the Morgan County jail, but the head of the Alabama Sheriff's Association said such a complaint is common around the state.
"You're never going to be able to satisfy them," said Bobby Timmons, the executive director of the association.