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Alabama Sheriff Fights to Keep Extra Funds Meant to Feed Prisoners

After being held in contempt, the sheriff in Morgan County, Alabama has obtained approval from a federal judge to let her keep any proceeds left over in her jail’s food fund. While a controversial 1939 state law has allowed Alabama sheriffs to retain such funds – which are distributed by the state – federal court orders from 2001 and 2009 prohibited Morgan County’s sheriff from doing so.

The 2001 lawsuit – against then-Sheriff Steve Crabbe – challenged conditions at the Morgan County Jail (MCJ). It ended with a consent decree to build a new jail and improve conditions of confinement at the facility.

The case returned to federal court in 2008 amid complaints about food and conditions under then-Sheriff Greg Bartlett. Bartlett testified that he had taken $212,000 of the jail food fund’s “excess” since 2006--garnering him the nickname “Sheriff Corndog,” because that’s what prisoners at his jail were served, twice a day for weeks, after he reportedly purchased a tractor-trailer load of corndogs for $500.

In 2009, the federal district court hearing the case jailed Bartlett overnight for contempt of the original consent decree. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.1]. A new decree, reached that year, stipulated that all MCJ food funds must be used solely for the purpose of feeding prisoners.

Current Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin took $160,000 from the jail’s food fund in 2015, but her actions didn’t come to light until they were reported by Glenda Lockhart on her Morgan County whistleblowers blog. Franklin had once arrested Lockhart and her husband for obstruction of government operations; the charges were later dropped, and Franklin settled a lawsuit for unlawful arrest.

Sheriff Franklin said food cost overruns at the jail had cost $26,600 of her own money in 2015 and 2016, plus another $38,000 through the first half of 2017. She stated publicly that she would like the county to take over the jail’s food services but never made a formal request to the county commission, according to Chairman Ray Long. Commissioner Randy Vest added that this “[was] just not cost efficient,” since the county would not be able to use low-wage prisoner labor.

“When the program is run right,” Chairman Long said, “there’s plenty of money in [the jail food fund].”

Tuscaloosa County has taken over food services at its jail, which is similar to MCJ in the size of its prisoner population. In January 2017, Tuscaloosa County Chief Financial Officer Bill Lamb reported losing $344,000 the prior year on jail food services.

A 2010 law passed by Limestone County voters ended the practice of letting the sheriff keep excess jail food funds, but also increased the sheriff’s pay to 85 percent of the highest salary given to a circuit court judge in the county.

Of the $160,000 that Sheriff Franklin took from the MCJ’s food fund in 2015, she loaned $150,000 to a now-bankrupt used car dealership, Priceville Partners, LLC, which was co-owned by convicted felon Greg Steenson.

Accused of selling stolen vehicles at the dealership, Steenson, 47, was charged in August 2016 with theft, forgery and theft by deception in operating the dealership. Court records show the vehicles were not owned by Steenson or the dealership, and clear titles were not provided with the purchases.

Franklin first said the loan came from her personal retirement account before her misappropriation of the jail food funds came to light. She was listed as a creditor in Priceville’s bankruptcy filing. Neither she nor her co-creditors have been charged with a crime related to the used car dealership.

The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), charged with monitoring jail conditions under the 2001 and 2009 court orders, filed a motion challenging Franklin’s seizure of the MCJ food funds for her personal benefit. In its filing, the SCHR provided exhibits of unappetizing or hazardous meals served at the jail.

“Many grievances [filed by prisoners] note that entire cell blocks were fed reduced or watered-down portions – a tiny amount of soup, a spoonful of grits, five or six green beans or carrot slices as a vegetable serving, a sandwich with half a slice cheese on it, and the like – because the kitchen lacked enough food to serve everyone the portions on the menu,” the motion stated. “Detainees have complained of finding assorted matter in their food, such as rocks and, in one case, a nail. Similarly, detainees report that meat is inedible because it is raw, beans are inedible because they have not been cooked, and bread is inedible because it is stale or moldy.”

Franklin’s attorneys said spending all the money in the food fund would not ensure a “nutritionally adequate diet” is served to detainees.

As to whether the consent decrees apply to Sheriff Franklin, now-retired federal judge U.W. Clemon, who approved the 2009 decree, said it applies to whoever is sheriff.

In June 2017, Franklin was held in contempt of the consent decrees and fined $1,000. She replaced the $160,000 from the food fund but also asked the federal district court to state the decree did not apply to her, arguing that it was entered into only to get Bartlett out of jail when he was held in contempt of court.

Under a deal reached between Sheriff Franklin and SCHR on June 15, 2017, Franklin admitted her actions were in contempt of the court order governing access to excess food funds. The court then lifted that portion of the order, with SCHR’s agreement. U.S. District Court Judge Abdul K. Kallon also ordered Franklin to pay $5,000 for SCHR’s legal costs.

“I accepted the civil contempt because I didn’t go to the court and get an order to terminate the paragraph [restricting the sheriff’s use of food funds],” Franklin said. “I didn’t do that because I didn’t believe I had to. Never did I know from the time I took office that the contempt order from Greg Bartlett was applicable to me. The language in the order issued to the former sheriff was ambiguous and not clear to me and apparently to others who advised me.”

SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty disagreed that the consent decree was ambiguous. “It’s apparent from the clear language that it applied to her,” she said.

SCHR will continue to monitor jail conditions, Geraghty added, but she noted the Prison Reform Litigation Act makes it easier for prison and jail officials to end consent decrees.

“After two years, termination is automatic unless we could show a problem with the food was leading to a current threat of serious harm to peoples’ health or safety,” Geraghty said. “That is a very high standard.”

After securing the end of the prohibition against taking excess jail food funds, Sheriff Franklin has asked the court to lift all remaining provisions of the earlier consent decrees. See: Maynor v. Morgan County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 5:01-cv-00851-UWC.

On January 5, 2018, SCHR and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed suit in Hale County Circuit Court against 49 Alabama sheriffs they accuse of failing to comply with an open records request for documents related to “whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails.”

“The public has a right to know whether sheriffs are meeting the basic human needs of incarcerated people in their care, or are instead filling their personal coffers,” stated Alabama Appleseed executive director Frank Knaack. 


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Related legal case

Maynor v. Morgan County Alabama