Meeks 1 of 49 sheriffs sued; civil rights group seeks records on jail food
Published 9:47 am Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Covington County Sheriff Dennis Meeks is among the 49 Alabama sheriffs named in lawsuit filed last week challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails.
The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed the lawsuit in state court challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails. The lawsuit was filed in Hale County Circuit Court.
Meeks said Tuesday that, as prescribed by Alabama law, he receives $1.75 per day per state inmate for a food allowance. Municipalities pay $7.70 per day for food, or $2.56 per meal when their inmates are housed there. He estimated that only 10 percent of the county jail population is municipal inmates.
“The sheriff in Covington County isn’t making any money on this,” Meeks said. “What these people don’t realize is that I get audited on that.”
The SCHR has called into question whether a state law authorizing sheriffs to “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails allows them to take any amounts not spent on food as personal income.
Meeks said no one from either of the organizations involved in the suit has ever sought to talk to him.
“None of them have walked in my office to talk to me,” he said. “If they did, I’d say, ‘Show me where I’m making big money.’ ”
There were two months last year, he said, when food expenses were greater than the income for food, and he had to make up the difference from his pocket, he said.
Aaron Littman of the SCHR said Tuesday that his organization sent open records requests across the state seeking information about food accounts.
“A relatively small faction responded adequately by confirming they don’t take the money or showing that they do,” he said. “Others didn’t respond at all, or responded with a form letter from the Sheriffs’ Association.”
Those who did not adequately comply with the request were named in the suit, he said.
Littman said interpreting the law as allowing sheriffs to pocket any difference in income and expenses “raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail.”
But Meeks said local inmates eat pretty well.
“It’s pretty doggone good,” he said. “Matter of fact, I actually eat a meal from over there ever so often, just to see.”
While Meeks contends that local inmates are offered vegetables, that is not necessarily true across the state.
In 2009, the former Morgan County sheriff was held in contempt and jailed by a federal judge after he purchased half of an 18-wheeler load of corn dogs for $500 and fed them to inmates at every meal. During the preceding year, he had skimmed almost $100,000 from his office’s food money account.
The plaintiffs are seeking an order from the court that the records they requested are public, and that the defendants must produce them.
“We certainly hope that they comply,” Littman said. “The goal is not to have a court battle, but to get records the public is entitled to see.”
Other sheriffs named in the suit include the sheriffs of Autauga, Baldwin,
Barbour, Bibb, Blount, Bullock, Butler, Chambers, Chilton, Choctaw, Clarke, Clay, Cleburne, Coffee, Colbert, Conecuh, Coosa, Crenshaw, Cullman, Dale, Elmore, Escambia, Etowah, Fayette, Franklin, Geneva, Greene, Hale, Henry, Jackson, Lamar, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Marion, Marshall, Pickens, Pike, Randolph, St. Clair, Sumter, Tallapoosa, Washington, Wilcox, and Winston counties.