Skimping on Inmate Meals Profits AL Sheriffs

Shame on Alabama:

Back in the day of chain gangs, Alabama passed a law that gave sheriffs $1.75 a day to feed each prisoner in their jails, and the sheriffs got to pocket anything that was left over. More than 80 years later, most Alabama counties still operate under this system, with the same $1.75-a-day allowance, and some sheriffs are actually making money on top of their salaries. ...

Critics charge that Alabama is, in effect, paying law enforcement to skimp on food and may be rewarding sheriffs for mistreating prisoners.

"Critics charge"? We should all be critical of laws that reward the mistreatment of prisoners. Does anybody out there think this is sound public policy? (more...)

Consider inmate nutrition:

A prisoner advocate said he constantly hears complaints about jail food. "Most of it is like powdered food, and the portions are minimal in the county jails," said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, who visits Alabama jails to register prisoners to vote.

Unsurprisingly, the sheriffs disagree, pointing to seemingly nutritious menus. Should we believe them? Consider accountability:

The head of the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, Ron Jones, said state auditors cannot determine how much some sheriffs are making off the system because the lawmen put the money in personal accounts.

How they make a profit on $1.75 per inmate per day is a mystery, although a late night arrest followed by an early morning release nets the sheriff $3.50 without having to feed the arrestee a crumb. Is it smart to give sheriffs a financial incentive to encourage their deputies to make late night arrests on dubious charges that may never be prosecuted?

Now consider the excuses:

"These people eat better here than they eat on the street, and they eat three times a day," [Sheriff] Shaver said.

Well, they only get two meals a day on weekends and holidays, at least in Limestone County, but who's counting? And why should we assume, as Sheriff Shaver apparently does, that all his prisoners were living on the street before they were arrested, or that prison grub is better than the meals they might find at a homeless shelter?

The $1.75 fee was set in 1927. It should be scrapped and replaced with an adequate meal budget that, like the rest of the Sheriff's departmental expenses, is approved and funded by a legislative body. Allowing sheriffs to profit from funding that is already too meager is deplorable. Shame on Alabama for continuing this loathsome policy.

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    You Can Only Imagine The Slop They Are (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by PssttCmere08 on Sat May 17, 2008 at 12:42:13 PM EST
    being fed....

    Actually, the article quoted an inmate... (none / 0) (#13)
    by dianem on Sat May 17, 2008 at 03:16:10 PM EST
    ...who said that the food was not plentiful, but it was better than at other prisons. This is obviously a ridiculous system, but it has it's points. You can buy raw materials and lean meat more cheaply than you can buy highly processed foods. It's the processing that costs money, and they have all the labor they need. People in poor areas of many nations eat more nutritiously than the rich (not the poorest, but those who can afford basic food). Beans and rice, vegetables in season, lean meat... these are all healthy foods. When they provide prison's with unrestricted budgets for food, they are going to buy junk food, because it's easier.  

    They showed a typical days menu on for one of these prison's, and it was spartan, but essentially healthy. Little meat, lots of fiber, some vegetables. It would be nice to encourage other prisons - and schools - to use less processed food and feel their people something besides canned foods and sugared cereals.


    It's stupid (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Fabian on Sat May 17, 2008 at 12:48:24 PM EST
    and counter productive.

    At less than $2 a day, a meal is going to be mostly carbs and fats with minimal protein and some canned fruits or vegetables.  That's just for FOOD.  It's not considering any labor or overhead.

    I'm trying to come up with a menu and it would be oatmeal for breakfast, maybe two servings of protein a day probably eggs and milk and a high fat ground meat dish.  Dried beans to keep the protein up.  Cheap carbs like white bread, pasta, grits, polenta.  

    The only way to skim money off of that would be to cut the quality to barely above pet food.  Paranoia abounds as I envision law enforcement dumpster diving behind food pantries and grocery stores.  Free food => more money!

    Here is the sample menu from the article (none / 0) (#14)
    by dianem on Sat May 17, 2008 at 03:23:04 PM EST
    "The menu on a recent day in the Limestone County Jail was two pancakes and syrup, sausage and milk for breakfast; peanut butter sandwiches, chips and Kool-Aid for lunch; and white beans, turnip greens, fried squash, cornbread and sweet tea for dinner."

    If anything is lacking, it's the quantity of food. This does not seem like a lot of food for a grown man.


    I about nailed it without looking. (none / 0) (#15)
    by Fabian on Sat May 17, 2008 at 04:40:53 PM EST
    carbs - pancake, bread, cornbread
    fats - sausage, PB, chips
    protein - milk, (no eggs), fatty meat, PB, beans
    veg/fruit - squash, greens

    Fruit and veg are expensive compared to other things, so they always bite the dust first.  High quality protein is also not cheap.  I think they are on the skimpy side there.


    It's pretty good on the food pyramid (none / 0) (#18)
    by dianem on Sat May 17, 2008 at 07:28:38 PM EST
    low fat, high fiber, more veges than my husband usually eats in a day. It's a shame they can't spend a bit more and stick to the same principles. The idea of feeding prisoners basic food instead of canned/pre-packaged fast food is sound. If I were in charge, I'd keep the basic system but make a few changes. First, increase the amount of money and index it to inflation. Then have the program audited by nutritionists to make sure that basic nutritional needs are being met. Set a few guidelines for minimum calories and protein requirements. But I wouldn't change the basic structure - pay money to the sheriffs and let them sort it out. There is a reason that institutional diets are legendary for being low quality. Government purchasing adds red tape and makes flexibility impossible. It makes sense to use two day old bread from a local bakery and vegetables that can be bought locally and in season. If they institutionalize the food purchases, these guys will be eating canned vegetables and wonder bread, which will be shipped  in from whatever out of state provider gives the best deal. Homemade food is simply better - but it's harder to manage.

    $1.75 = $20.34 in 1927 (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by Exeter on Sat May 17, 2008 at 12:51:35 PM EST
    According to the inflation calculator.

    Going out on a limb (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by boredmpa on Sat May 17, 2008 at 02:03:19 PM EST
    I'm going to assume the 1927 law was a capitated system that paid for room/board/admin.

    I'm guessing that funding of jails eventually changed, but they left the law on the books as part of the payment/funding system.


    Only Problem Is This Isn't 1927 And The Price (none / 0) (#8)
    by PssttCmere08 on Sat May 17, 2008 at 01:17:10 PM EST
    of foods is sky rocketing.  

    I believe there are experiments (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by HelenK on Sat May 17, 2008 at 01:03:52 PM EST
    going on in English jails that prove a good diet rich in omega-3s make the inmates more peaceful and productive.

    Food has huge influence on our mood and mental health. Feeding prisoners better is a win-win.

    But giving sheriffs the ability to make money off them makes NO SENSE at all.

    I read yesterday that one sheriff feeds his (none / 0) (#2)
    by Teresa on Sat May 17, 2008 at 12:43:03 PM EST
    inmates on $1.37 per day. That is just disgusting. I don't see how that is possible.

    I give my ten year old $2 bucks a day (none / 0) (#3)
    by leis on Sat May 17, 2008 at 12:47:17 PM EST
    for lunch at school.  $1.75 a day is criminal.  How can they possibly be getting enough to eat?  Why do people think there is no low-bar in the treatment of prisoners?  How do these people live with themselves?

    The horrible thing is that this is quite common... (none / 0) (#4)
    by Exeter on Sat May 17, 2008 at 12:47:19 PM EST
    in all states. I know one sheriff in the midwest that once bragged recently that he only spends 35 cents a meal on prisoners. There is no incentive for a sheriff to spend money on anything for prisoners. They are usually short jail stays and its not exactly a constituency they care about screwing over.

    Not that bad eating-wise (none / 0) (#9)
    by boredmpa on Sat May 17, 2008 at 02:00:01 PM EST
    If the inmates aren't working, you could do it for ~$1 a day since you're dealing with bulk.  Lots of beans and carbs, some milk/juice, and if you don't have prisoners for a long time then you don't even have to worry about vitamin supplements/balancing.

    I mean, 16 slices of oscar myer bologna is frequently $1 at my grocery, 8 english muffins is 1$, and boxed rice-a-roni is $1.  None of that is bulk pricing. Half gallon OJ is $2  -- All name brand.

    And yes, single person allowance for food stamps is $160 a month but you can survive and get nutrition for a hell of a lot less if you have purchasing choices (store competition or bulk) and a place to cook.  FWIW, I've lived fairly well on under 60$ (and I can barely cook), but it would be a pain to live on $30 and get any semblance of nutrition.

    policy-wise it's stupid, but it's about politics (none / 0) (#11)
    by boredmpa on Sat May 17, 2008 at 02:29:02 PM EST
    This is probably a state vs county payment issue.  I mean, a different payment/tracking setup could  easily be introduced, but they'd need to partner it with sheriff salary increases because whatever has been pocketed has probably been part of the overall salary/benefits fight for years.  Think of how unions negotiate on health, salary, days off, benefits, etc--like it or not it's part of the salary package (and one of the reasons unions were initially against single payer healthcare).   So it would be a political hot potato, especially if the salary is paid or managed locally.

    Also, if they revisit the law, someone will ask why the amount is so low and want to index it to inflation, and then the sheriffs will want their kickbacks (bonus) indexed as well.  Not to mention, I think everyone hears 1.75 a day and freaks out that it's insanely low.  But I know in this city that I pay at most 40% of what people pay at Safeway and that's not even bulk.  

    IIRC (none / 0) (#17)
    by jackyt on Sat May 17, 2008 at 06:57:59 PM EST
    The unions were in favor of universal health care. It was the big-3 automakers that put the kibosh on it, thinking they could do it cheaper. (I guess we all know how that has worked out.)

    actually (none / 0) (#20)
    by boredmpa on Sat May 17, 2008 at 08:31:19 PM EST
    The AFL was opposed as early as the thirties--even for an employer required mandate.  There was another group the AALL that wanted an employer mandate, but they didn't have support (and the AFL was opposed). This is from the Institute of Medicine's book on health insurance.

    The rationale then and over time has been that unions are concerned about workers and their own bureaucratic existence that depends on negotiation power and visibility.  It's a simple and clear political calculation.

    What's more important, and I believe highlighted more clearly in other texts, is that unions love to logroll on healthcare issues--for example there was a publicly reported fallout within a CA union because they decided to support a governator plan in exchange for allowing additional nurses to unionize in california.  Unions are organizations that are concerned about their power, their viability, and their workers.  As a result, they don't prioritize universal coverage and have sometimes actively opposed it.

    The AMA is actually a bit better in that it has changed stances over time as doctors have gotten fed up with insurance companies (imho), though they are obviously very concerned about federal control/standards eventually usurping their power as a private oversight body.


    Intimate meals? (none / 0) (#12)
    by Sweet Sue on Sat May 17, 2008 at 02:40:10 PM EST
    I know this is stupid, but I read that headline as "intimate meals." So I was thinking, okay, no more chocolate fondue for two, fellas.

    Alabama jails are crowded because of (none / 0) (#16)
    by jeffinalabama on Sat May 17, 2008 at 05:44:33 PM EST
    Prison overcrowding, also...

    don't forget about such antiquated diseases such as pellagra, either.

    $1.75 per day may be doable. (none / 0) (#19)
    by clio on Sat May 17, 2008 at 08:29:05 PM EST
    With thought and care.  
    I don't know if the sheriffs are doing it. Perhaps it can't be done any longer with food prices, especially staples, which the food plan below depends upon, having risen so much.

    I refer you to The Hillbilly Housewife Low Cost Emergency Menu
    A favorite site of mine and great to browse through.  Can personally recommend the meat loaf and chocolate pudding recipes. Unfortunately, the prices on the shopping list are outdated.  Note that this diet makes no concessions for special nutritional needs, although it's a pretty good diet even for diabetics.  I do think that the lack of milk for adults may make calcium intake problematic.

    All that said the idea of giving a per-capita payment for anything (HMOs, anyone?) where the payee gets to keep whatever isn't spent is a recipe for greed-caused disaster.

    One would think.... (none / 0) (#22)
    by kdog on Sun May 18, 2008 at 08:05:50 AM EST
    it would be safer for all involved...prisoners and guards...to give these people a piece of meat for dinner.  I remember my dad telling me that nobody made trouble in the pen on the day they served one the con's favorite meal.  If you were gonna start trouble and get sent to the hole you did so on a day they served smoething sh*tty.

    I would guess that in Alabama, as in my kitchen, they believe in the "no meat, no meal" rule. A piece of sausage with pancakes at breakfast, follwed by pbj and some veggie concoction for dinner...I couldn't stand it, I'd go bonkers or find a way to smuggle in some cold cuts.

    commissary (none / 0) (#23)
    by diogenes on Sun May 18, 2008 at 08:40:58 PM EST
    I wonder what percent of inmates get outside commissary or visitors' money?  Also, it should be fairly simple for the ACLU to have doctors examine inmates released after a year in a county jail to document if there are actually any nutritional dediciency diseases present; this would be grounds for an actual class action lawsuit.
    Most often don't prisoners end up gaining muscle mass if anything, or is that just up here in New York?