Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell said he isn’t losing sleep about being named in a lawsuit for not turning over records involving funds allocated to feeding jail inmates.
The groups suing him and 48 other Alabama sheriffs think he should be.
The Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed suit Jan. 5 in an effort to find out how much money each sheriff has kept for personal use.
The two groups filed the lawsuit in Hale County.
State law allows sheriffs to personally keep any excess inmate-food funds, although Limestone and some other counties have shifted financial responsibility for jail food to county commissions.
Mitchell said he “hasn’t turned anything over,” but is simply following the advice of Alabama Sheriff’s Association attorney Donald R. Rhea, of Gadsden.
“He has responded to everything (in the suit),” Mitchell said. “He is asking that any information on the lawsuit come from his office.”
According to Rhea, the responsibility for feeding the inmates is personal to sheriffs and the public has no right to the information.
“Under Alabama law, unless the County Commission has taken responsibility for the financing of feeding of prisoners, that responsibility rests with the sheriff of the county," Rhea said in a statement. "That responsibility is personal to the sheriff. That means, if there is a shortfall in the funds available for the feeding of prisoners, the sheriff has personal responsibility to meet that shortfall. The lawsuit is asking that the court require that personal financial records be turned over to these groups."
Rhea said most county commissions have resisted efforts by sheriffs to shift financial responsibility for inmate food to the county budgets.
Mitchell said he wishes it wasn’t his personal responsibility to keep up with jail food financing.
“I don’t have any problem with the County Commission taking over the feeding of the prisoners,” Mitchell said.
Lawrence County Commission Chairman Norman Pool said if the state Legislature makes it a law, Lawrence County will abide by it.
“If the Legislature passes the law, we’ll follow it,” Pool said. “That doesn’t mean we have to like it. … We’ll make it work.”
The director of Alabama Appleseed said the 49 sheriffs are putting themselves above the law.
“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,” Frank Knaack, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed, said in a statement. “The Alabama Public Records Law exists so that we can hold our government accountable. Unfortunately, a number of sheriffs have decided that our public records law does not apply to them.”
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, not listed in the lawsuit, said the public records law doesn’t apply to the sheriffs in this case. He said the funding is considered “personal money” and not open to public scrutiny.
He said several years ago, before the Limestone County Commission took over the financing of the jail food, a freezer quit working and meat was spoiled.
“I wound up losing about $5,000 out of my pocket, not the county’s budget, not the Sheriff’s Office budget, because it was food I was financially responsible for,” Blakely said. “Sheriffs are personally responsible for the money. Most every sheriff in the state would like to see county commissions take it over. I know sheriffs who have lost their own money on (jail food)."
He said a change in the law, so sheriffs are not responsible for inmate meals, would increase trust between sheriffs and the public.
"Public perception is (the sheriffs) will skimp on the food costs to get extra money," Blakely said. "They would like to see the law changed and make the county or state responsible for it. Public perception is everything. I’m glad I don’t have that responsibility any longer.”
Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said he disagrees with Blakely and the sheriffs who are not disclosing their jail food financing.
SCHR is a nonprofit, civil rights organization in Georgia that has been involved in litigation on behalf of people incarcerated in Alabama jails.
Littman said his reading of Alabama law is the money sheriffs receive for inmate food is public, and that records pertaining to the money also should be public.
“The money is not compensation," Littman said. "It’s public money received (by the jails). It’s all taxpayers’ money. ...
“The law allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes, not to line their own pockets. The money is there so inmates can get adequate food, and the money provided has to go to food.”
Littman said the sheriff’s association has referred their open records requests to the Alabama Department of Finance, which isn’t provided with the figures they are requesting.
Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin, who is not named in the lawsuit, said she supports a proposal by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and County Commission Chairman Ray Long that would end the ongoing controversy over jail food money in Morgan County. The proposed amendment would not allow the sheriff to keep leftover food money as personal income but would give the sheriff a pay increase for the lost income.
Orr proposed increasing the sheriff’s pay to within $5,000 of the commission chairman’s $101,276 annual salary. That’s up $25,096 from the sheriff’s current $71,180 salary.
As a local constitutional amendment, the proposal would require support from the local legislative delegation as well as favorable votes from the state House and Senate. It also would require a favorable vote from Morgan County voters via a countywide referendum.
Long said he hopes to put the issue to county voters as early as June so candidates seeking the sheriff’s office in the November 2018 election will know in advance the position's salary.
Long said he believes the inmates are being adequately fed today, but there always will be doubt as long as the sheriff can legally keep the money.