Reports of Alabama sheriffs pocketing money intended to feed prisoners have made headlines nationwide recently, and local law enforcement officials are supportive of efforts to reform the archaic and ethically questionable practice.

Generated from allocations received from municipal, state and federal agencies for housing and feeding prisoners, money in these “feeding funds” can add up quickly, and a handful of sheriffs have been accused of skimping on food purchases in order keep excess funding for themselves.

Perhaps no case better illustrates those concerns than that of Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who was the subject of an report revealing he’d collected more than $700,000 from his jail’s feeding fund since 2015.

Entrekin has denied any wrongdoing, citing a 1939 law making sheriffs personally responsible for feeding inmates, which some have argued also entitles them to keep any money they manage to save meeting that responsibility.

Two human rights groups filed a lawsuit earlier this year against dozens of Alabama sheriffs, including Entrekin, who refused to comply with repeated requests for documentation of how such money is used in the jails they oversee.

Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran wasn’t involved because feeding funds go directly to the County Commission here, as they have since his predecessor ran into trouble for putting hundreds of thousands of dollars from those funds into a personal retirement account.

That’s not how it works in Baldwin County, where Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack is still personally responsible for feeding inmates and managing the money he receives to do it. However, Mack claims he does not and has never personally profited from state or federal feeding funds.

“Under the open records law, it says I have to make documents available, but it doesn’t say I have to have two employees doing two days of work for a third party in another state,” Mack said when asked why he declined to turn over the requested records. “They said we want to look at those documents — well, they can come sit here and look at them any time.”

Mack did open up a year’s worth of invoices, receipts and ledgers to Lagniappe, though, and those records indicate hundreds of thousands of dollars from outside funding sources went toward feeding and housing Baldwin County inmates in 2017.

All jails in Alabama receive $1.75 per inmate, per day to feed state prisoners, which generated $291,715 for the BCSO last year.

The office took in much more from contracts, like those with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Mack said BCSO receives $40 per inmate, per day from federal agencies, $24 of which goes to the county’s general fund.

Federal funds, which pay for more than food, generated $996,600 over the same period, though Mack’s office only retained $398,640 of that and the rest went to the county. Including revenue for housing municipal inmates — a $55 daily fee — and the feeding fund saw approximately $760,592 in 2017 in addition to the jail’s $9.7 million county allocation.

These figures (rounded) represent monies that came into the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office feeding fund in 2017 from state and federal sources as well as expenditures to a third-party food vendor. (Jason Johnson)

The majority of that went into payments to Aramark Correctional Services Inc., which has been contracted to provide and prepare food in the jail for several years. Payments to Aramark totaled $635,783 in 2017, and Mack said any overages have remained in the food fund.

Using a third party has helped improve the quality of meals while reducing costs, according to Mack.

“With Aramark, our price comes out to about $1.33 a meal. Over the past five years, we’ve decreased our overall food costs by about $250,000 per year. All of our meals are hot and they follow a 28-day, dietitian-approved rotation,” he said. “We do use inmates to actually serve the meals out of the kitchen, but all the planning and preparation is done by Aramark.”

The allegations against Entrekin and others, including former Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett, are that they may have been incentivized to reduce the cost of the meals fed to inmates to increase what they could retain personally, sometimes at the expense of nutritional value or portion size.

Mack said that isn’t the case in his jail.

He said meal plans are based on a 2,000-calorie daily intake, at least, and are designed around inmates’ specific health and medical requirements. He even eats there himself, and sent Lagniappe a picture of his most recent meal — spaghetti, green salad, toast and whole milk.

The “food bill” monies are kept in a separate account, but unlike some sheriffs, Mack says he doesn’t list that account under a personal Social Security number and instead uses BCSO’s tax ID number.

Because most Alabama sheriffs manage these food funds themselves, what happens to the money can be difficult to track — hence the multi-county lawsuit seeking financial records.

The only reason reporters were able to see that Entrekin kept $750,000 worth of additional compensation from “food provisions” was because he listed that income on Statement of Economic Interest (SOEI) forms he filed with the Alabama Ethics Commission.

On similar SOEI forms, Mack lists “between $1,000 to $10,000” of personal income from what he describes as “fees” he receive from the state. He said that money does come from managing food bill funds but doesn’t come directly out of what’s allocated to feed prisoners.

“That doesn’t come from food money, it comes from the state directly to the sheriff for the service he provides in running that $1.75 account. It’s five cents per inmate, per day,” he said. “I refused to take it my first few years in office because I associated it with the food bill, but I was told by our auditors I had to because I’m required to pay income taxes on it.”

Mack told Lagniappe the “fee” typically generates around $3,000 per year, which is within the range listed on his 2017 ethics disclosure. Mack said he doesn’t keep the money personally but instead uses it for “charitable donations.”

Mack recently gave a presentation to the Baldwin County Commission outlining how his finances at the jail are managed and asked commissioners if they wanted to take over the management of those funds, as Mobile, Jefferson and Montgomery counties already have.

But according to Commission President Tucker Dorsey, there’s not much of an appetite among county officials to take on the additional financial burden.

“We don’t want it. I also serve on Association of County Commissions of Alabama, and at a statewide level, county commissions don’t want it. The jail is under a sheriff’s responsibilities, and we want them to manage it,” Dorsey said. “Hoss is one of the most honest politicians in Coastal Alabama, and I have zero questions about his integrity.”

ACCA Executive Director Sonny Brasfield has also previously said there’d be pushback against statewide reform efforts, which lawmakers began discussing at the end of the 2018 regular session after reports about Entrekin’s income over the past three years went national. 

Mack said some resistance stems from how jail operations can differ between smaller and larger counties. He said in some cases, the personal responsibility sheriffs have to feed inmates has meant them writing personal checks to cover the cost of inmates’ food.

In the meantime, many legislative delegations have opted to pass local bills either turning the management of those funds over to the county or expressly forbidding sheriffs from profiting from them. Just this year, Etowah and Cullman counties passed similar legislation.

Baldwin County intends to pursue its own reform bill next year, which Mack said would require “all monies collected for the purposes of feeding inmates stay in the food bill account” and would prevent any of those funds from being “claimed as personal income by the sheriff.”

Dorsey said he and other commissioners would support those efforts, but Mack believes lawmakers should still be pursuing a statewide solution that also addresses how Alabama feeds its prisoners in the first place. He said patchwork laws create confusion from county to county.

“It goes back to Alabama’s Constitution, which is archaic and out of date, like this funding. You can’t be expected to feed an individual humanely on $1.75 a day,” he said. “The only way we’re going to get consistency is with a statewide bill. If all the counties do it the same way — if all the money is spent and accounted for in the same way — that consistency is going to build trust.”

Cochran, who has previously called the food bill issue “a black eye for the state,” said he agrees with Mack, adding one of the issues that’s been overlooked in the media is how little funding the state actually provides counties to feed its prisoners.

Mack said BCSO would lose $815 a day if it only received the state’s $1.75 fee and depends on federal and municipal contracts to operate sustainably. Cochran said, at a minimum, it costs $3 a day to feed an inmate even with the advantage bulk buying through a third party.

At the end of the day, both said it’s the state’s problem to fix.

“They just found an extra $58 million for the Department of Corrections,” he said. “If they don’t want to the state to have such a bad name over sheriffs making money off inmates, it seems like they could meet the responsibility to adequately feed the prisoners they already have.”