by Kevin W. Bliss
In June 2018, Sheriff Todd Entrekin withdrew from his re-election campaign in Etowah County, Alabama, conceding to his only opponent, Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton. Entrekin will serve out the rest of his second term and hand over the position in January 2019. He withdrew under a cloud of suspicion, with a lawsuit pending against him and 48 other county sheriffs, filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in January 2018, for failure to produce public records.
Entrekin refused to produce documents showing how money from his jail’s food account was being spent, stating only that prisoners are fed balanced, nutritious meals that are well above minimum calorie counts and respectful of religious restrictions. However, he also reported on ethics forms that he personally earned $250,000 in each of the past three years – in addition to his salary – by keeping excess funds not spent on food for prisoners’ meals.
Under a 1939 state law, a number of Alabama counties still turn the unused portion of their jail food account over to the sheriff for their personal benefit. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.48; April 2010, p.1]. Sheriff Entrekin used around $750,000 of that money to invest in a lavish beach home with his wife in September 2017.
Entrekin also has been accused of bribery. He hosted a campaign fundraiser at Otter Creek Farm where the guests were all owners of businesses awarded contracts with the Etowah County Jail, including Osborn Brothers, which now supplies the jail’s food service. The sheriff does not have legal authority to enter into contracts obligating the county but can make recommendations on contracting decisions to the county commission.
With a population of just over 100,000, Etowah County – and its largest city, Gadsden – sits just outside the Birmingham metropolitan area. It is one of the most densely-populated counties in the state.
Much of the controversy that engulfed Entrekin during his re-election campaign played out online. Facebook pages such as one titled “Million-Dollar Sheriff” poked fun at Entrekin and his apparent profiteering from the jail. A website called “Expose the Snake” reminded voters that his opponent, Horton, had been accused of domestic violence and convicted of driving under the influence after a 2006 crash in which another driver was injured.
Meanwhile, complaints about jail food have continued to multiply from former prisoners, who reported that many items were not even purchased with jail food funds, instead being donated by local businesses.
“They have a big hauling trailer and they go to Crossroads Church up in Albertville at least twice a month and get crackers, cereal, packs of stuff that’s past the expiration date,” said Chris Bush, who worked in the jail’s kitchen in 2013.
Strongarm Food Ministry, which operates out of the church as a separate entity, made donations to the jail, confirmed Angie Oram, wife of Crossroads youth pastor Andy Oram. Michael Lane, a spokesman for Keystone Foods, said the meat manufacturer had also made donations. The Pennsylvania-based firm maintains a facility in Gadsden.
Since the jail does not have to pay for donated food, the funds that otherwise would have been spent on prisoners’ meals go into the sheriff’s pocket.
Among more serious allegations of misconduct, former prisoner Alec Allen said that during his nine-month stint at the jail in 2011, he and other workers in the kitchen were warned days in advance of health inspector visits, then “spent all that time throwing away old food that we were still going to serve.”
Bush added that meals were so stingy that many prisoners went hungry and there were suicide attempts just to get more to eat. And prisoner Benjamin Hunter said he handled boxes of food at the jail between 2013 and 2014 that “literally said in bold red letters plain as day on the top, bottom and sides of the box, ‘Not Fit for Human Consumption.’”
“The meat patties they feed you and call it either chicken or Salisbury steak or whatever, it’s literally for dog food. We called them starfish patties because they look more like a starfish than anything,” Hunter stated.
“They fed the inmates up there stuff I wouldn’t feed to my dogs, that’s just the God’s honest truth,” agreed Allen.
The long-haul truck driver, who said he was released with an intestinal parasite and still suffers gastrointestinal problems, reported cooking donated chicken for jail meals – even though the meat was spoiled.
“I guarantee that [Sheriff] Entrekin wouldn’t eat it,” Allen noted.
“This is a jail, this is not a bed and breakfast, Domino’s does not deliver here,” Entrekin countered, though he did allow that “many of our people are not happy with the food they are served.”
Until August 2018, the state’s comptroller, Kathleen Baxter, paid jail food service allowances directly to the personal bank accounts of county sheriffs, who had no specific obligation to spend the money in a certain way. Baxter was directed to cease that practice by Governor Kay Ivey, who also created an affidavit for sheriffs to sign under oath, agreeing the funds will be spent solely for “preparing food, serving food and other service incident to the feeding of prisoners.”
The affidavits, however, only apply to money received for housing state prisoners, currently calculated at $1.75 per prisoner per day. In counties that still allow sheriffs to retain excess jail food funds, there is no obligation regarding money received from the county or a local municipality.
“He’s feeding these inmates garbage,” Allen, the former prisoner, said of Sheriff Entrekin. “As someone who’s been in there, seeing the corners he’s cutting and everything, it all comes down to greed.”
Meanwhile, the public records suit filed against county sheriffs over the use of jail food funds was dismissed due to a procedural issue in September 2018. During the next legislative session, state Senator Arthur Orr is expected to introduce a bill that would prohibit sheriffs from pocketing unspent money in jail food accounts.
Sources: www.independent.co.uk, www.al.com, www.dailykos.com, www.usnews.com
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