By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The jail food funding practices that allowed one Alabama sheriff to buy a beach home and earned another the nickname “Sheriff Corndog” could soon be history.
The Alabama House passed this week a bill to stop county sheriffs from pocketing leftover jail food funds and set new parameters for how county jail meal money is handled.
The bill also increases the daily allowance for inmates’ food from $1.75 to $2.25. The money would be placed into a newly-created Prisoner Feeding Fund.
Senate Bill 228 was passed out of the House unanimously, but with an amendment that takes out a two percent increase in the state food allowance every two years. Under the amendment, the Legislature would have to approve individual increases in state funding.
The executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, Bobby Timmons, said that he doesn’t like the amendment added on to the bill, but overall thinks it is a major accomplishment for the state.
“I would have liked to not seen the amendment on there but I don’t think it will cause any real damage in the long run,” Timmons said. “It’s a good bill, what they’ve created, and it’s about time that outdated law has been changed in Alabama.”
The bill now goes back to the Senate, where it had passed unanimously. Sponsor Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has said he expects the Senate to approve the House change.
During the floor debate, Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, said the bill shifts liability for dealing with the food funds from sheriffs to the county commissions.
The bill is also meant to stop the decades-old ability of sheriffs to keep leftover food funds, which has lead to some sheriffs pocketing the money for their own personal use.
Orr represents Morgan County where a previous sheriff was called “Sheriff Corndog” after keeping $200,000 over three years while inmates ate corndogs twice a day.
Last year it was reported that the Etowah County Sheriff had kept so much money he was able to buy a $740,000 beach house.
Orr said there was an urgency in the Legislature to change the law.
“We’ve gotten support from the sheriffs and the counties and just appreciate everyone working together to abolish this practice that probably worked well in the 1920s and 30s when it was first adopted, but not today,” Orr said.
Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, voted for the bill but voiced concern on the House floor about having the county commissioners become responsible for the Prisoner Feeding Fund.
“We have just as many issues with our county commissions and we don’t have as many with the sheriffs,” Moore said. “But that concerns me because they have too many pots of money that they are responsible for.”
“Our county commissions are not good stewards of money at all.”
Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said that his “favorite part” of the bill was the two percent raise every two years, but that he still supports the bill.
The amendment to strike the 2 percent increase passed without any opposition.
Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, said he campaigned on the jail food issue and was proud to vote in favor of the bill.
“It’s high time we update this antiquated law dealing with how jail food is paid for and administered,” Sorrell said. “A few bad apples among the sheriffs will no longer be able to abuse the system and liability will be transferred to the county commission. This is a good bill all the way around.”
Rep. Jamie Kiel, R- Russellville, said he was happy to support the bill because it means taxpayer money is being spent the way it was meant to be.
“I believe that any time taxpayer money is used, it should be used for the intended purpose, it should be open to public scrutiny, and those handling the money should be held accountable,” Kiel said. “Our sheriffs work hard and we should pay them a fair wage, but like any other public employee, we should know how much they make and where the funds come from.”
Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, said that it was about time the state updated the state’s system in feeding inmates.
“This reform was long overdue,” Ball said. “It should insure that prisoners will be properly fed and eliminate the questionable practice of public officials pocketing the food money.”
Rep. Parker Moore, R-Decatur, said he appreciates how the bill is making sure inmates are treated fairly.
“I was in full agreement with this bill because it eliminates the sheriff from being able to pocket the money,” Parker Moore said. “But it also increases the amount per day for better food. We are seeing inmates lose weight and not be as nourished as they should be this will help address that issue.”
Rep. Andy Whitt, R-Harvest, said that fixing these kinds of problems is what state representatives like him should be doing to improve the state.
“I believe this solves an age-old problem,” Whitt said. “It’s my job to be a judicious steward of our state’s finances and I feel led to support bills that establish accountability and transparency. Steps like this push us towards restoring trust in government for the folks of Alabama.”
Rep. A. J. McCampbell, D-Livingston, said that the bill’s simple goal was easy to get behind.
“The bill is designed to provide food for the jail and inmates and make sure sheriffs don’t have any incentives to not provide adequate food for the inmates,” McCampbell said.
Rep. Barbra Boyd, D- Anniston, said that she appreciates the amount of oversight the bill provides for feeding inmates.
“I consider this a great first step in regulating the meals that people receive while incarcerated, and I would hope that this would put great emphasis on choosing and selecting meals that are nutritious and adequate for our prisoners,” Boyd said. “Also, with providing the proper nutrition this could also cut back on any costs to the state for medical needs for the prisoners.”
Rep. Ginny Shaver, R-Leesburg, said she supports the bill because it covered all of the areas that needed to be addressed when it came to feeding inmates.
“The issues that concern me most about the feeding of inmates are accountability, potential for abuse, inadequate funding and removing the personal liability for that from the sheriffs,” Shaver said. “This bill addresses these problems.”
“In the interest of full disclosure, my husband is a sheriff. Shortly after he was first elected, he reached an agreement with the county commission to take the responsibility for the jail food money. This bill also upholds these type of contract.”
Gov. Kay Ivey announced last year that sheriffs must sign an affidavit that says funds will only be spent on preparing, serving and ordering the food needed for the inmates.