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Alabama Sheriff Jailed For Starving Prisoners: States Cut Prisoner Meals

By Gary Hunter

Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was arrested by federal authorities on January 8, 2009, after he admitted to pocketing $200,000 designated for prisoners' meals in the Alabama jail.

Johnny Maynor and Anthony Murphree, prisoners in the jail, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The court found Bartlett guilty of civil rights violations for failure to provide prisoners with “a nutritionally adequate diet” and failure to provide adequate legal materials.

Maynor's and Murphree's complaints stemmed from a Consent Decree issued by the Court, on September 25, 2001. In two paragraphs of the decree the County had agreed to serve nutritionally adequate meals (par. 22) and to provide specific legal materials (par. 33) to its prisoners.

What the court found was deplorable. For breakfast prisoners would receive a serving of unsweetened grits or oatmeal, a slice of bread and half an egg or less. Lunch consisted of either two baloney sandwiches or two sandwiches with a small dab of peanut butter and a small bag of corn chips. For dinner prisoners received either two hot dogs, chicken livers or meat patties, either slaw or onions, beans or mixed vegetables and a slice of bread.
Each meal was accompanied by either weak tea or an unsweetened beverage. Prisoners never received milk and only received fruit three or four times during the relevant two-year period.

On one occasion Sheriff Bartlett paid $500 for a tractor-trailer of hot dogs. He then served those hot dogs “at each meal until they had been depleted.” This wording by the Court was also underlined and emphasized on the record.

The court further found that "During the relevant period, Sheriff Bartlett has deposited in excess of $200,000 into his personal account from the funds allocated to him by the State of Alabama and the federal government for the feeding of inmates." The use of his personal account to hold the money is legal under Alabama law.

The Court also found that "Inmates of the Morgan County Jail did not damage or destroy all of the legal materials…" as county officials had contended. Prisoners in the jail had been denied legal materials since 2007.

On January 7, 2009, the Court concluded that "Defendants contumaciously violated the Consent Decree." Bartlett was immediately arrested for contempt. He was released the next day after meeting the Court's requirements to bring the jail up to standard. Among other things Bartlett agreed to fire his nutritionist and to keep state money in a separate account.

On January 27, 2009, Sheriff Bartlett filed a motion to alter or amend judgment and requesting a new trial. In the words of the Court the motion was "frivolous" and "unhesitatingly DENIED, in all respects."

Prisoners across the U.S. can look forward to losing weight as state and local leaders are balancing their budgets by cutting back on the number of meals served to prisoners.
Georgia had years ago pared its prison menus to just two meals on weekends. Now lunch on Friday has been eliminated also.

Officials say that prisoners are still getting the required amount of daily calories, 2,800 for men and 2,300 for women. But 95 percent of prisoners are now on the 2-meal per day diet with only diabetics and pregnant women still being fed 3 times daily.

Parents and loved ones of prisoners have expressed serious concerns about the cutbacks.
"I don't know how the guys who don't have someone on the outside helping out handle it," said Barbara Helie whose son is in the Valdosta State Prison. "Food has been an ongoing issue for him…he's hungry a lot."

Georgia justifies the cutback saying that prisoners are still getting fed 3 meals a day on the days that they work. The prison altered the work week from five 8-hour days to four l0-hour days. Prisoners still work forty hours a week but are fed less. Even with the change the state is unsure if it's saving money.

What is certain is that reports of prisoner assaults have increased dramatically, in Georgia's prisons, during 2009. Prison officials say the decreased diet is not the cause but can offer no alternative explanation.

"We don't think this [elimination of another meal] is a good idea," said Sara Totonchi, of the Southern Center for Human Rights. "It destabilizes things inside the prison and that is not good for any of the inmates or staff."

Ohio is also prepared to cut back more meals in its prisons. State officials are considering the possibility of serving brunch instead of breakfast.

It "could save us some real dollars when it comes to staffing and food costs," said prisons director Terry Collins. He also said the change would not upset prisoners as long as quality was not sacrificed.

Alabama drastically cut the amount of milk and fresh fruit served to prisoners. Milk was cut from seven servings a week down to three. Fresh fruit was cut from two times a week to one. The state projects a savings of $700,000 from the cuts.

Tennessee also cut milk portions in half for its prisoners in an attempt to save $600,000 on its budget.

Gordon Crews, a professor at West Virginia's Marshall University has a different prediction. "A lot of prisoners will see something like that as some kind of retribution against them or some kind of mistreatment." He points to the riot at the Reeves County Detention Center in Texas as an example.

Poor food quality played a part in that riot. "It'll be something that the correctional staff will pay the price for…another reason (for inmates) to argue and fight back."

Food is finding a different niche in Boston's Suffolk County House of Correction for Women. A three-year grant of $950,000 has been used to teach the women how to eat and prepare healthier meals.

The women learn about different fats, carbohydrates and proteins. They fill out worksheets and study nutrition labels. “The core objective of our program is instilling a sense of empowerment and to build their sense of self-esteem," said program director Christina Ruccio.

Almost all of the students pointed out that the nutritional diets that they were learning were not available in their jail.

Much of what the women learn "will be more applicable when you get out there," instructor Abby Dunn told her class.

The program also teaches the women how to reduce stress through a variety of exercises and health-related topics.

Sources: The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, Maynor v. Morgan County, Alabama, Civil Action Number 5:01-cv-0851-UWC

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Related legal case

Maynor v. Morgan County Alabama