Civil Rights Groups Sue 49 Alabama Sheriffs for Access to Public Records Showing How Sheriffs Personally Profit from Funds Allocated for Feeding People in Jail

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On Friday, January 5, 2018, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice v. Kenneth Ellis, et al., a lawsuit in state court challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails.

Many sheriffs in Alabama contend that a state law authorizing them to personally “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails permits them to take any amounts they do not spend on food as personal income.  “This archaic system is based on a dubious interpretation of state law that has been rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes–not to line their own pockets,” said Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights.  “It also raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail.”

In an effort to learn which sheriffs across the state have taken taxpayers’ money from jail food funds, and by how much they have profited, the plaintiff organizations have sent letters requesting copies of financial records showing how much each has kept for personal use.  Although certain sheriffs have responded in compliance with Alabama’s open records law, 49 sheriffs have refused for nearly half a year to comply with their clear obligations to produce the records, claiming instead that these documents are “personal.”  Some even recently responded to a request by the plaintiff organizations for records regarding any jail food obtained for free or shortly before its expiration date with the same argument.

“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,” said Frank Knaack, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed.  “The Alabama Public Records Law exists so that we can hold our government accountable.  Unfortunately, a number of sheriffs have decided that our public records law does not apply to them.”

The Southern Center for Human Rights receives reports from people in Alabama jails that they are being provided inadequate or unhealthy meals, or food that is spoiled or contaminated.  In 2009, the former Morgan County sheriff was held in contempt and jailed by a federal judge after he purchased half of an 18-wheeler load of corn dogs for $500 and fed them to inmates at every meal.  During the preceding year, he had skimmed almost $100,000 from his office’s food money account.

It is presently unknown how much money sheriffs across the state have taken because most do not report it as income on state financial disclosure forms.  What is clear is that the sums can be significant.  One sheriff who did make such a report took more than $250,000 in “compensation” from “food provisions” in both 2016 and 2015.  Another sheriff was held in contempt of a federal court in 2017 after removing $160,000 from the jail food account and investing it in a used car dealership.

The lawsuit was filed in Hale County Circuit Court.  The plaintiff organizations, represented by attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights and Jake Watson and Rebekah Keith McKinney of Huntsville, seek an order from the court that the records they have requested are public, and that the defendant sheriffs must produce them.  They have requested that their suit be consolidated with a related case filed by Sheriff Kenneth Ellis which is currently pending before the same court and involves the same question of public access to information about how sheriffs profit from jail food funds.

The complaint is available online here.

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