Human rights advocates are suing dozens of Alabama sheriffs, seeking greater transparency into a funding stream many believe creates an incentive to skimp on food purchased for prison inmates and allows sheriffs to pocket any savings personally.

Under Alabama law, sheriffs are required to turn over money they collect in an official capacity to their respective county commission, except funding “received for feeding prisoners.” In many counties, the sheriffs also have full discretion over how any leftover money is spent.

Current law provides for sheriffs to receive $1.75 per day to feed each state inmate and up to $3 per day to feed each federal inmate in their custody. With a growing prison population and loose transparency laws, many believe the practice incentivizes unethical behavior — a belief not without precedent.

For the past six months, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice have been trying to obtain a financial accounting of how sheriffs across the state use that funding to see if any are profiting from it personally.

Some sheriffs provided the requested information. Others, such as Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, no longer receive “a food fund” because the money is deposited straight into the county government’s general fund.

However, at least 49 — including Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack — have not complied with what Alabama Appleseed Executive Director Frank Knaack says is a “clear obligation” to produce public records. Instead, those officials have claimed the documents are “personal,” often responding en masse through the Alabama Sheriffs Association.

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

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. Others, though, have made it a practice to declare what they received from leftover “food fund” monies on their taxes via a federal 1099 form.

The lawsuit follows a string of incidents over the past decade that have brought increased scrutiny to the use of this funding and even criminal convictions for some sheriffs found to be willfully abusing the system at the expense of prisoners’ health.

In 2006, former Mobile County Sheriff Jack Tillman was convicted of perjury and ethics charges related in part to money he took from the food fund and placed into a personal retirement account. In a plea agreement, he repaid $13,000 and gave up any claim to another $350,000 of leftover money that had accumulated in the same “food account.”

In 2009, former Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was held in contempt and jailed by a federal judge after purchasing an 18-wheeler load of corn dogs that could no longer be sold for $500 and feeding them to inmates for multiple meals during the day. With the savings, he collected more than $200,000 for his personal use.

The incident earned Bartlett the nickname “Sheriff Corn Dog” and led to a court order requiring sheriffs in Morgan County to use their prisons’ food fund exclusively for feeding prisoners. But Bartlett’s successor, Sheriff Ana Franklin, ran afoul of that court order last year.

Court records show Franklin pulled $160,000 from the food account to invest in a used car dealership, Priceville Partners, that has since closed. One of its co-owners, Greg Steenson, has since been arrested and charged with operating the business through theft and scam; he had previous fraud convictions at the time Franklin invested in the now-bankrupt dealership.

Franklin was ultimately fined $1,000 for violating the existing court order, but while her case was clear-cut, there has been some legal debate about whether sheriffs are allowed to benefit personally from their food funds.

Aaron Littman, SCHR staff attorney, says they can’t, but many sheriffs disagree. The use of the food fund hasn’t been an issue in Mobile County since local legislation was passed directing to funds to the County Commission. Today, the county contracts out the task of feeding prisoners, which is then paid for with money received from the “food fund.”

“Neither I nor the office keep any of that funding,” Cochran told Lagniappe. “It doesn’t even come to us, and what does, we immediately deposit into checking, and it goes to the county’s general fund.”

Cochran turned over documents to SCHR corroborating those claims, which is why he’s one of 18 Alabama sheriffs not named in the public records lawsuit. It’s currently unclear how Baldwin County uses its funding, as requests for comment from the office haven’t received a response.

Speaking with Lagniappe, Cochran was critical of the “horrible” law that allows sheriffs to “keep and retain” leftover food funds to continue, though he did say it would be difficult for any sheriff that’s “trying to do right” to actually benefit from the fund personally.

“I think it makes the state look horrible, but yet some of these sheriffs are in a Catch-22,” he said of the 1939 law. “It does make it look like some could be starving prisoners to make money, and it does give Alabama a black eye, but the public needs to understand that the Legislature is who needs to fix this, and they’ve failed in the past because the Association of County Commissions of Alabama doesn’t want to increase funding for sheriff’s offices.”

It is true that previous legislative fixes have been opposed by the ACCA and the Alabama Sheriffs Association — most likely because of the money it can generate or save counties and sheriffs’ departments. In 2015, Cochran’s salary was just under $140,000, but in smaller counties and in some of those named in the recent public records lawsuit, sheriffs can take home much less.