East AL sheriffs named in lawsuit over public records, inmate food funds
EAST ALABAMA (WTVM) - Many sheriffs across Alabama are being questioned about whether they may be breaking the law.
Alabama law says sheriffs are entitled to pocket excess money used to feed inmates, but a lawsuit is challenging the claim.
As it stands right now, it is legal for sheriffs to control the feeding of their inmates from picking out the menu to determining how much money should go toward meals in jail.
Attorneys say the problem is if there's money left over, the sheriffs get to pocket that money for their personal use. A lawsuit is challenging the age-old tradition.
"They claim they are legally entitled to pocket the money, but they make that claim based on a state statute," said attorney Aaron Littman.
Littman is an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, one of two organizations that's filing a lawsuit naming 49 Alabama sheriffs as defendants.
Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice is also name as an organization on the filed suit as well.
The list includes Macon County Sheriff Andre Brunson, Chambers County Sheriff Sid Lockhart, Barbour County Sheriff Leroy Upshaw, and Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones.
The lawsuit claims these sheriffs are not providing public records information of how much money they are pocketing that isn't used for feeding inmates. Alabama sheriffs across the state said this is a legal practice according to Alabama law, but attorneys believe otherwise.
"That interpretation is wrong. They aren't entitled to personally profit," said Littman.
This case gained traction after Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin reportedly bought a $750,000 beach house, but claims that his jail struggles to make ends meet with revenue.
"We have had to take out bank loans of over $150,000. My wife and I had to personally take out these loans and had to personally pay them back," said Entrekin.
Jails receiving federal, sometimes city funds, and the state gives jails $1.75 a day per inmate for food is the heart of the issue. Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said sometimes the money doesn't cover the costs.
"There's a disagreement in regard to records that may or may not be public. That's where the issue lies," said Jones. "The last several months we've seen more months where the revenue did not quite meet the cost incurred."
The Lee County Sheriff says a dietitian reviews and assures every inmate is given proper calorie count and special foods are ordered for those with preexisting issues.
Sheriff Lockhart had response issued from Alabama Sheriffs Association that said in part, "Historically, this statute has been authoritatively interpreted as confirming that while the Sheriff is the official responsible for the feeding of prisoners, the Commissions of the respective Counties in the State of Alabama have supervisory authority for that task. See Opinion to the Honorable James E. Turnbach, Etowah County attorney, dated June 14, 1996, A.G. No. 96-00239.'
News Leader 9 reached out to Sheriff Brunson and Upshaw and are awaiting a statement in regard to this suit, but sheriffs have said they would like to see the duty of dealing with jail food funds given to other hands.
However, Jones says sheriffs across the state are in agreement to propose legislation to pass jail food operations off to another entity.
"Legislation needs to be introduced that would address this circumstance to standardize statewide how this system is handled how the inmates' money is handled. I am personally in favor of that," said Jones.
As for prosecution attorneys, they are hoping for answers to records they believe the public should be aware of.
"The purpose of our lawsuit to expose this practice to determine for us to know and the public to know how much money the different sheriffs are making under this," said Littman.
A hearing for this suit will be held in Hale County, Alabama on June 7.
See lawsuit below: