Starving prisoners for profit

When a County Sheriff sits in his office leaning back in a leather executive chair, the last place he would want to end up is incarcerated as a prisoner in one of his prison cells. That, however, is what has just happened to Sheriff Greg Bartlett from Morgan County in Alabama. He was sent to his own jail after a judge found that he had been starving his prisoners in order to pocket their food budget.

Under an Alabama law passed in 1927, sheriffs were allocated $1.75 to feed each prison inmate per day. But the sheriffs were allowed to spend less than that full amount on prisoners’ food and to keep the difference. Although the sum of $1.75 bought a reasonable amount in 1927, it doesn’t over 80 years later; so when Bartlett tried to maximise his profit turn from the $1.75, he took the idea of “economic meals” further than the law permits.

Bartlett testified that, supplementing his annual salary of $64,000, he made an additional $212,000 in personal income over three years by siphoning off “excess” from his prisoners’ food budget. In 2001, in a federal legal action regarding conditions for Morgan County prisoners, a settlement was made which required inmates to be given the minimum of “nutritionally adequate meals”. When a federal judge recently found evidence of continuing endemic malnourishment among prison inmates, he jailed the sheriff for contempt of court.

The judge heard how the sheriff had put about half of the public money allocated for prisoners’ food into his own bank account while feeding 300 men and women prisoners things such as bloody chicken and cold grits. Ten emaciated prisoners testified before the federal judge saying things such as “we had an apple at Christmas and I think we had them one other time”.

Bartlett has now been released and has moved back from his cell stool to his executive chair. But there are no reports on how well he dined during his prison stay. He has given the federal court an undertaking that in future he will spend all the public funding he gets for prisoners’ food on prisoners’ food. It remains to be seen whether the state of Alabama will now do anything about the anachronistic law under which sheriffs can keep public money that they don’t spend on the designated purpose of feeding prisoners. A law that tempts officials to get rich by starving people is odd in the 21st century.

It is also unusual for a person such as Bartlett who works on the punishment side of the legal system to end up suffering under it. The most chilling case was that of John Stratford. He was a blacksmith who made a sleek new design of iron gallows for Norwich gaol in England. But then he murdered someone and, in 1829, became the first person to be hanged on his own handiwork.

Professor Gary Slapper is Director of the Centre for Law at the Open University

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