A federal judge told Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin on Friday that a federal consent decree requiring all money received to feed jail inmates be spent for that purpose applies to her.
Franklin moved money out of the inmate food account in 2015 but since has returned it.
“In my view, it was a clear violation of the consent decree,” U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon said during an 80-minute hearing Friday afternoon.
Barney Lovelace, Franklin’s attorney in the federal hearing in Decatur, argued that a 2009 amended consent decree earmarking jail food money applied only to Greg Bartlett, who was sheriff at the time.
But the judge didn’t buy that argument.
“The sheriff of Morgan County, whoever he or she is, is a party to this lawsuit,” Kallon said.
Attorneys for Franklin and the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is representing jail inmates in a 2001 federal lawsuit, presented oral arguments to Kallon on the center’s motion for Franklin to show why she should not be held in contempt of the decree.
Kallon said he would research the matter further and issue a written ruling. He did not indicate when he would issue his ruling.
“The sheriff was not entitled to ignore Judge (U.W.) Clemon’s order," Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney for the center, told Kallon.
Lovelace argued that the 2009 amended decree applied only to Bartlett because its only purpose was to get Bartlett out of federal prison after Clemon, then a U.S. district judge, found him in contempt of the original 2001 decree.
“That was meant to punish him and was an extension for him to get out of jail,” Lovelace said.
Kallon said nothing in the amended decree says the provision would be dropped when Bartlett left office.
Clemon also erred in issuing the amended decree because the judge did not include a finding that spending all the money to feed inmates was necessary to furnish adequate meals, was narrowly drawn, and didn’t go any further than necessary to correct a constitutional right, Lovelace said.
“If Judge Clemon meant for it to apply only to Sheriff Bartlett, you would expect to see that in parts of the order,” Geraghty said. “But he did not do that.”
Kallon admonished Franklin for not asking the court for a clarification of the consent decree before removing $160,000 from the account in 2015. Franklin loaned $150,000 of the money to Priceville Partners, a used car dealership that declared bankruptcy last year. Franklin has not been repaid any of the loan.
The entire $160,000 has been returned to the jail food account, court records show.
Franklin said after the hearing that she loaned the money to the dealership to recoup $21,000 from the jail food account lost when expenses exceeded revenues. She said her intent was to use interest from the short-term loan to make up for the loss.
She said she relied on legal advice that the amended decree applied only to Bartlett. She said she was backed by state law that allows sheriffs in the state to pocket money left over from feeding jail inmates.
“I have in no way tried to disrespect the consent decree,” Franklin said.
Kallon said he will hold a hearing on Franklin’s motion to strike the requirement that all inmate food money be spent to feed inmates. He told the attorneys he would send them several possible dates in late June to consider.
Several times during the hearing Kallon said Franklin should have asked the court if the amended decree specifying that all the money be spent for meals applied to her.
Lovelace said it’s not necessary that all the food money be spent to provide inmates nutritionally adequate meals.
“I agree that they can be fed nutritionally adequate meals without spending all the money,” Kallon said. “But here we have a consent decree for all the funds to be used for that purpose … How is that not clear?”
The case began in 2001 when Morgan County Jail inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the county and former Sheriff Steve Crabbe over conditions in the jail. The two sides agreed to a consent decree later in 2001 that resulted in the county building a jail and making other improvements.
The matter returned to the courtroom in 2008 when inmates complained about the meals they were served, including eating corn dogs three times a day for two months.