OUR VIEW: It’s time to change law on feeding inmates
Posted Mar 18, 2018 at 1:01 AM
Ninety words of legalese, Section 36-22-17 in Alabama’s Code, have people stirred up not just here but across the planet right now, following media reports targeting Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin’s administration of the county’s jail food fund and his real estate dealings.
The fuel for the conflagration was an AL.com report charging that Entrekin, in line with language in that statute allowing sheriffs to keep excess money from feeding inmates, over the last three years “pocketed” more than $750,000 from money provided by federal, state and local governments to feed prisoners at the Etowah County Detention Center.
The report also notes that Entrekin and his wife last September purchased a $740,000 house in Orange Beach, and either individually or collectively own properties in Etowah and Baldwin counties worth $1.7 million.
The report never uses the word “wrongdoing,” but its unavoidable insinuation is that something nefarious is going on in Etowah County.
Domestic and foreign media outlets have picked up the story, and Entrekin has become Public Enemy No. 1 on the internet for political pundits and aggrieved people on their social media soapboxes.
The optics of this are horrible, and there isn’t enough makeup in all the Sephoras and Ultas in the United States to make them presentable.
We’ll also state up front that Section 36-22-17 is a lousy, antiquated law, born in a time when sheriffs and their families lived in and ran county jails in a way that conjures up memories of the famous, fictional jail in Mayberry, North Carolina. It has no place in the 21st century.
However, we advise those who are enraged about this to check our archives or those of other media outlets in Alabama. This isn’t a new debate, it’s just taking place for the first time in an interconnected, social media-driven world with countless eyes watching, and with people in London and Stockholm able to speak their piece on events happening in a small Alabama county. (We’re aware that to some folks today, unless it’s on Facebook, it never happened.)
The situation already was ramped up by a lawsuit filed against 49 Alabama sheriffs, including Entrekin, seeking records of how they’ve profited from their jail food programs.
Basically, sheriffs in Alabama are personally liable and responsible for feeding inmates in their jails. Entrekin isn’t the only one who interprets Section 36-22-17 as allowing him or her to keep any leftover money. A 2008 state attorney’s opinion reiterated that feeding prisoners is on the sheriff’s quarter, and he or she “may retain any surplus from the food service allowance as personal income.”
That equates to legal in our book, although that which is legal is not inherently wise.
There’s a catch, though. “Personally liable and responsible” also means that if the program loses money, it comes out of the sheriff’s hide.
Entrekin points out that when he became sheriff, he had to personally borrow money to replenish the inmate food fund, which continued to operate at a deficit for a while. That changed, he says, when he began treating it as a business and doing things like buying in bulk and shopping for bargains.
He insists that inmates, including those with specific medical or religious requirements, are properly fed, that a dietician is on staff and jail meals meet every standard.
We have no reason to doubt him, but we agree with those who say sheriffs have an incentive under the law to minimize expenditures to maximize profits.
Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was jailed in 2009 by a federal judge for contempt of court for improperly feeding inmates. (Barlett reported keeping $212,000 over three years from the jail fund.)
Testimony in that case revealed that he and another sheriff pooled their money and bought an 18-wheeler full of corn dogs, and prisoners complained they were served corn dogs twice a day for weeks. No one expects inmates to get 5-star cuisine; a corn dog diet shouldn’t happen.
Entrekin has been accused online of using jail fund money to buy the Orange Beach house. The original AL.com report doesn’t say that, but it’s easy for things to spin out of control online, plus the optics again are terrible. He says he “owes a lot of money,” and the mortgage on the Orange Beach house is nearly $600,000. (Entrekin’s $93,178 salary has been cited in this debate, but he actually has a two-income family. His wife is a federal probation officer, and they are well compensated.)
Perhaps he should offer some clarification on his finances beyond that which is required under law, if it would ease this turmoil.
Entrekin once backed an effort to change the jail feeding statute, which was unsuccessful. Perhaps he should do so again, or at least commit as his opponent in the upcoming Republican primary has done to pumping proceeds from the food program into the county’s general fund. The sheriff has often gone to the County Commission seeking money for his office; $750,000 would hire a lot of deputies.
Perhaps this controversy will prod Alabama’s legislators into giving the responsibility for feeding inmates to county governments, where it belongs.
We’ve been told county commissions don’t want it. We don’t particularly care.
We’ve been told the profits might evaporate because, unlike sheriffs, counties would be subject to bid laws and couldn’t chase deals. So be it.
Sometimes you just need to do what’s right, wherever it leads. That needs to happen here.