A retired federal judge who ordered that money the Morgan County sheriff receives to feed jail inmates could be used only for inmate meals said Sheriff Ana Franklin is not complying with a consent decree if she is keeping any of the money to supplement her $68,000 annual salary.
Franklin said last week that the money used for feeding Morgan County Jail inmates goes in her personal money and is therefore not a public account. The second-term sheriff is of the understanding that any leftover funds in the account after inmates are fed is her own personal money, per state law.
Franklin denied a public records request filed by The Decatur Daily seeking financial information about the inmate food account.
U.W. Clemon, a retired federal judge now practicing law in Birmingham, said last week that if money the sheriff receives to feed inmates is used for other things, it “clearly is” a violation of the amended consent decree he approved in 2009 when Greg Bartlett was sheriff.
“I enjoined the sheriff of Morgan County, whoever that is, from using any funds that are provided for feeding inmates for anything other than the feeding of inmates,” Clemon said Thursday.
Before retiring, Clemon presided over a class-action lawsuit filed in 2001 by Morgan County Jail inmates against the county and then-Sheriff Steve Crabbe about jail conditions.
The Daily on Dec. 15 submitted a written request under the state open records law asking Franklin to provide the newspaper with records from the inmate food account. The request asked for bank statements, banking deposits and withdrawals, checks written on the account, audits of the account and deposits into the account for specific time periods.
Franklin’s written reply Wednesday said she declined to furnish the requested documents because state law says “any such account is not considered a public account.” She cited the state law that allows sheriffs in the state to keep money that is not spent on feeding jail inmates, and a 2008 state attorney general’s opinion sought by Etowah County that reaffirmed the law.
In January 2009, Clemon approved an amendment to the consent decree that reads: “The Sheriff of Morgan County shall immediately establish and implement a procedure whereby all funds provided by any source for the feeding of inmates, including funds from the State of Alabama, any municipality, and the federal government, will be used exclusively for the feeding of said inmates incarcerated in the Morgan County Detention Facility."
Franklin said in her Wednesday letter that she wanted to “emphatically state” that all money remaining in the account for feeding inmates after paying for food and related expenses remains “in any accounts maintained for what you refer to as the ‘Food Account,’ which would consist of more than one account.”
She also said that her office has been “in complete and full compliance” of the consent decree requirements concerning providing nutritional meals to inmates based on the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid.
Barney Lovelace, Franklin’s attorney, said Wednesday in an email that state law clearly recognizes the inmate food money as Franklin’s personal account. He said publishing checks or other information from the account would be an invasion of Franklin’s privacy.
“There is ample legal authority that the disclosure of information from someone’s personal private bank account is actionable as a civil cause of action and also could subject the person who wrongfully obtained and disclosed such information to criminal prosecution,” Lovelace wrote.
Attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights said Friday they plan to look into the jail inmate food account, including requesting financial records of the account. The center in Atlanta represented the inmates in the original lawsuit and is the federally appointed monitor in the case.
Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney at the center, said the center will be interested in the sheriff’s response when the center requests financial information of the account after learning that Franklin had denied releasing the records to The Daily.
Geraghty called Franklin’s response to The Daily’s records request “cryptic.”
Geraghty said she hasn’t seen any legal authorization that exempts the inmate food account finances from being open to the public.
Franklin could not be reached for comment Friday.
Bobby Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, said Thursday he thinks the 2009 order issued by Clemon does not apply to Franklin, and that the inmate food account here is not subject to the open records law.
“It looks like he addressed that to Morgan County and Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett,” Timmons said.
Timmons said he’s not sure a federal court order, such as the one issued by Clemon, supersedes the state law allowing sheriffs to keep unspent inmate food money.
“Federal courts can’t write laws,” he said. “If the courts find that a law is unconstitutional, yes, they can strike that law down. Here, Judge Clemon didn’t rule the state law unconstitutional.”
Clemon also wrote in the 2009 modified order that the attorneys for the inmates would twice a year conduct unannounced inspections of the jail “and financial records regarding all funds received and expended by the sheriff for the purpose of providing meals” to county jail inmates.
Attorneys from the center inspect the jail yearly, Geraghty said. She wasn’t sure if inspecting the inmate food account finances has been part of the center’s yearly visit.
The county paid the center $44,276.88 for legal services in 2001, but has no record of payments since, according to the Morgan County Commission office.
Bill Shinn, the county’s attorney before retiring this month, in 2011 offered an unofficial opinion that the court order applied to Franklin, who had asked for the opinion between winning the election and taking office.
Shinn said in 2011 that he gave Lovelace a copy of case law that backed his opinion. Shinn attached a note to the case law referring Lovelace to a federal court procedural rule.
The rule says: “Public Officers; Death or Separation from Office. An action does not abate when a public officer who is a party in an official capacity dies, resigns, or otherwise ceases to hold office while the action is pending. The officer's successor is automatically substituted as a party. Later proceedings should be in the substituted party's name, but any misnomer not affecting the parties’ substantial rights must be disregarded. The court may order substitution at any time, but the absence of such an order does not affect the substitution.”
Geraghty on Friday said the amended consent decree limiting the use of jail inmate food money applies to Franklin.
“Unless a recent document that I’m not aware of has been filed, the language is binding,” Geraghty said.
The 2001 lawsuit was filed by a group of county inmates about the conditions in the jail. Defendants included Morgan County, Crabbe, jail administrator Myra Yates, all five Morgan County commissioners by name, Gov. Don Siegelman and state Department of Corrections Commissioner Mike Haley.
The two sides later in 2001 reached a settlement in the case in which the county agreed to build a new jail and to improve living conditions, health care and diet, security and fire safety, and access to legal materials.
Clemon amended the consent decree after inmates complained about inadequate meals. Clemon’s order came after sending Bartlett to federal prison for one night in 2009. Bartlett testified during a hearing that he kept about $212,000 over three years from leftover inmate food money.
The state pays the county $1.75 per inmate for each day a state inmate is in the jail. The federal government pays about $3 per meal for each federal inmate housed there.