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Prisoners Released When Jails Can’t Feed Them

Prisoners Released When Jails Can’t Feed Them

by Mark Wilson

"We didn’t have food for them and we don’t want to violate anyone’s rights when they are here,” said Wellston, Missouri Police Chief G. Thomas Walker, explaining why he released all of the prisoners from the city jail. “To keep people, we have to feed them.”

Walker, who said he had not had a formal budget since the 2010-11 fiscal year, blamed Wellston Mayor Linda Whitfield for the problem.

“I’ve made several requests over the past couple of months for food and they are telling me it is the mayor that is holding it up,” he said.

When the city stopped funding jail meals, officers – who earn just $11.96 an hour and are required to purchase their own guns, ammunition, flashlights and uniforms – paid for food out of their own pockets.

“I’ve had officers that have went to Save-A-Lot and bought cold cuts and bread to give the prisoners,” said Walker. “We sent in a request for reimbursement, and it was sent back by the bookkeeper on the request of the mayor.”

So on July 26, 2013, Walker ordered the release of the jail’s five prisoners, all of whom were held on misdemeanor warrants. He said the closure of the jail would require felons to be housed at the St. Louis County Justice Center, costing the city around $200 a day. Misdemeanor arrestees would be booked and released, but officers could elect to hold domestic violence offenders, buy food for them and seek reimbursement.

“This is not acceptable,” stated City Council Member Sam Shannon, noting that the council was unaware of the prisoner releases until they happened.

The jail’s closure prompted one officer to donate enough food to feed prisoners through the weekend, allowing the facility to reopen the next day. Less than 24 hours later three prisoners were already confined at the jail. Concerned Wellston business owners also offered to donate food to keep the jail open.

“It’s sad, it really is,” said Walker. “This city is not a rich city, but it does have the wherewithal to provide the basics. I do believe revenues have increased and I do know crime in the city of Wellston is down and it’s my job to keep the officers motivated to serve the citizens and to give them the service and protection that they deserve regardless of what is going on internally in the city.”

Mayor Whitfield declined to comment.

In a more recent, similar incident, three to four prisoners being held on non-violent misdemeanor charges were released from the Fairfield, Alabama city jail on April 16, 2015 because no one signed a $500 check to purchase food for the facility. The cells remained empty until the check was signed and the money credited.

“I had no choice but to release them,” said Police Chief Leon Davis. He said prisoners incarcerated for serious crimes were moved to the nearby Jefferson County Jail. Because the law requires that prisoners have decent meals, Davis said, he was not able to book anyone until he had the funds to do so.

“Let me be clear: If we need to arrest you, we will arrest you,” Davis declared when releasing the prisoners. “It’s not a free day for criminals in Fairfield. And once I get food, we’ll be back in business as usual.”

The meal issue at the Fairfield city jail was resolved in about a week, after an anonymous donor covered the cost of food for prisoners.




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