Long before Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade started his career in law enforcement, the responsibility to feed inmates at the county jail shifted from the sheriff to the County Commission.
“It’s not something a lot of counties do,” Wade said. “It’s a huge cost to the County Commission.”
In most counties, the sheriff is personally responsible for feeding inmates. According to Alabama law, sheriffs’ offices receive from the state $1.75 a day per inmate. In counties where the sheriff is responsible for inmate nutrition, that $1.75 is all they have. Many sheriffs turn to buying in bulk or discounted food to meet the nutritional needs of their inmates, Wade said.
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin came under scrutiny this week after it was reported the he profited about $750,000 from that inmate food fund over the past three years, supplemented not only by the state but also by the federal government for immigration detainees.
“I think it’s important that citizens know, and I’m not taking up for anyone, but if sheriffs can feed inmates for $1.70 then they get to keep the nickel,” Wade said. “If they feed them for $1.80, they lost a nickel. It adds up. It’s all in the law, and it should change.”
Wade said those costs can fluctuate. Some days those sheriffs are profiting, and other days they’re “in the hole,” he said.
Calhoun County officials were unsure Wednesday when exactly the commission took on the responsibility of feeding inmates, but it occurred before former Sheriff Larry Amerson took office in 1994.
“All I can remember was there was some kind of an issue between the Sheriff and the County Commission,” Amerson said. “When I started in the ’70s, I worked in the jail and on patrol, so I wasn’t really privy to what happened in the administrative office.”
By the time Amerson took office, it had been a long practice, he said, that the County Commission was responsible for feeding inmates. Now that Wade sits in the seat, he said he’s glad that decision was made.
“It’s definitely cheaper for the county to have the sheriff responsible, but I do not want to be personally responsible for feeding them,” Wade said.
Under Calhoun County’s system, Wade is allotted $3.40 a day per inmate to feed them three meals.
“The state still gives us that $1.75, but the rest comes out of the commission’s general fund,” he said. “Last month, with an average of 549 inmates, the commission spent about $56,000 to feed our inmates.”
That money is strictly spent on products from companies the Sheriff’s Office contracts with, Wade said. Those contracts are bid out by the commission, the sheriff said. The process and costs associated with that, Wade said, are the reason many county commissions don’t take on the responsibility.
“County commissions in those other counties are saving all of that money every month, whereas the Calhoun County Commission is spending about $20,000 a month more,” he said.
In January, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed suit against 49 sheriffs who did not comply with a public records request regarding the finances of the food plans and programs. Wade was not one of the 49 sheriffs included in that suit.
“I want to do what’s decent and right,” he said. “Do I think the commission could force me to be responsible? I think they could, but I’d fight them tooth and nail. Even though it’s legal, it casts a shadow.”
Amerson said the law that allows sheriffs to profit from excess food money is a holdover from the late 1800s.
“When we serve a civil paper, there are costs associated with that,” Amerson said. “Back in the day that fee went to the sheriff. We even have a fee bill from the 1890s on the wall at the office that shows the fees collected.”
Amerson said the process was similar to commission work.
“If you served a search warrant or put a still out of business, that’s how sheriffs got their money,” he said. “It was truly a commission-type thing. For whatever reason, this food portion was left in place.”
Both Wade and Amerson said the law needs to change, but neither have much hope that it will.
“I don’t see the Legislature or commissions allowing this to be changed because it would cost the counties an extraordinary amount of money,” Wade said. “But they need to do the right thing and pony up.”
Amerson said many small counties struggle to feed their inmates on $1.75 a day.
“It’s very obviously outdated, and very contentious all the way around,” he said. “It’s been a problem all across the state. I’m very fortunate that I never had to mess with it.”