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Latest Prison Food Dispute Lands Ala. Sheriff in Prison

January 09, 2009 02:02 PM
by Denis Cummings
An Alabama sheriff spent Wednesday night in jail for failing to provide adequately nutritious meals to his inmates.

Sheriff Arrested for Skimpy Prison Meals

Morgan County, Ala., Sheriff Greg Bartlett was arrested Wednesday for providing prisoners with insufficient portions of food. He was imprisoned for the night and released Thursday after submitting a plan to provide acceptable meals.

Bartlett had taken advantage of a 1939 state law that allows sheriffs in 55 of Alabama’s 67 counties to pocket excess meal funds left over from the daily budget of $1.75 a prisoner—a budget that has remained unchanged in 70 years. Bartlett made $212,000 over the last three years, which he reported on his tax returns.

A group of prisoners represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Bartlett, claiming that they had lost weight eating “paper-thin bologna, bloody chicken and cold grits,” according to The Associated Press. Inmates claimed they were forced to purchase food from the expense jail store or go hungry.

No big portions. Pretty small portions,” said one former inmate who worked in the kitchen to WHNT-TV (Ala.). “Sandwiches for lunch were real skimpy. Potato chip bags, they had to be skimpy. If it was too big, we were told to make it skimpier. And if we didn’t do what we were told, we would be out of the kitchen, locked up and starving like everybody else.”

Bartlett had been given a decree in 2001 stating that he is required to provide “nutritionally adequate” meals; U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon ruled Wednesday that he “knowingly and willfully violated … the Consent Decree by consistently failing to provide a nutritionally adequate diet.”

Clemon’s rulings will likely have an effect of the 54 other Alabama counties. “It’s going to be real far-reaching,” said Bobby Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, to the AP. “It’s going to affect a lot of counties other than this one.”

Background: Prison food lawsuits

American prison food isn’t subject to many of the same laws and regulations that apply to food in the outside world. “Prison food law is an altogether different beast, primarily a product of prison law generally,” writes Harvard law student Cyrus Naim. “Legislatures have essentially adopted a laissez-faire approach, leaving wardens to run their prisons as they see fit. … The only accountability they face is in the courts, as a matter of Constitutional law, and even this is a relatively recent occurrence.”

Prison food is the subject of many lawsuits by inmates who argue that it is inadequate, unhealthy or just disgusting. For example, three Vermont inmates are suing the provider of a prison’s meals because they ate a piece of chicken that apparently “contained entrails and the contents of the bird’s digestive system.”

One meal has been particularly controversial: the prison loaf, also known as the Nutraloaf. Served to prisoners with disciplinary problems and those who cannot be trusted with utensils, the loaf includes—depending on each prison’s recipe—ingredients like bread crumbs, cheese, beans, vegetables, tomato paste and powdered milk. “It’s bland,” described NPR host Scott Simon in a taste test. “I didn’t know anything could taste this bland.”

Inmates in many states have sued prisons claiming that the loaf constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment. Courts have consistently ruled against the prisoners, following a 1992 loaf case in which the judge ruled, “The Eighth Amendment requires only that prisoners receive food that is adequate to maintain health; it need not be tasty or aesthetically pleasing.”

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