January 9, 2009

"As His Inmates Grew Thinner, a Sheriff’s Wallet Grew Fatter."

That's the headline to a NYT story about Greg Bartlett, of Morgan County, Alabama, who made $212,000 in 3 years by spending less than the state's allotment for feeding the prisoners — $1.75 a day for each person. That sounds terrible, but if you keep reading and make it to the 9th paragraph, you'll see that Bartlett was not stealing this money:
An unusual statute here dating from the early decades of the 20th century allows the state’s sheriffs to keep for themselves whatever money is left over after they feed their prisoners. The money allotted by the state is little enough — $1.75 a day per prisoner — but the incentive to skimp is obvious.
Now, that is a bizarre statute, giving the sheriffs a self-interest in underfeeding the prisoners and using the cheapest food items. And the prisoners went to federal court, saying they'd been losing weight.

It's not until the 5th paragraph of the story that we see the startling fact that the federal judge in the case — U. W. Clemon — sent Bartlett to jail to come up with a new meal plan.
The judge expressed no regret about sending Mr. Bartlett to jail. The Alabama law is “almost an invitation to criminality,” he said in the interview. Sheriffs, he said, “have a direct pecuniary interest in not feeding inmates.”
Is the statute constitutional or not? If it is, strike it down and move forward. Whether it is or not, Barlett didn't make the statute, nor was he charged with a crime. Isn't it shocking that he should be sent to jail over this? The premise for sending him to jail is a previously existing consent decree. Presumably, the judge held him in contempt for violating it. Why was such harsh treatment required? Out of shock that the prisoners were treated so badly?

How badly were they treated? There were 300 prisoners, and Barlett pocketed $212,000 in 3 years, so I calculate that Barlett was spending $1.10 a day for each prisoner. If you were buying food in bulk, could you provide adequate nutrition at that rate? I'd like to see the details — of the consent decree and the menus.
With precision and some wonder, Judge U.W. Clemon, who is retiring shortly, recounted a typical inmate lunch here: “Two peanut butter sandwiches, with small amounts of peanut butter, chips, and flavored water.” Hunger pains were not uncommon.
Hunger pains — not "pangs," but pains — after a lunch of 2 peanut butter sandwiches and chips? Could this news story be written with a little more neutrality?
“Given the testimony about the fairly blatant violations of the consent decree, I knew of no more efficient means of impressing on the sheriff the seriousness of the matter than by placing him in jail until he indicated a willingness to comply,” the judge said.
What say you lawyers out there? Did Judge Clemon abuse his discretion?


Host with the Most said...

This non-lawyer conservative thinks that the sheriff, on this point, is immoral.

In short - on this issue - legality aside, he's an asshole.

KCFleming said...

But he was just implementing the Cuban weight loss diet.

During the 1989-2000 Cuban Economic Crisis, people began to starve. Calorie intake fell from 2,899 kcal in 1988 to 1,863 kcal in 1993. Food intake dropped below nutritional requirements.

Not surprisingly, obesity prevalence decreased from 14.3% in 1991 to 7.2% in 1995. As a result, diabetes declined, as did deaths attributed to coronary heart disease and stroke.

Aside from an epidemic of blindness and peripheral neuropathy due to a lack of vitamins affecting over 33,000, they were healthier!.

So state-enforced mass near-starvation is good for you. The Sheriff was merely performing a public health service.

KCFleming said...

My apologies for re-posting that stuff.

It always makes me laugh.

rhhardin said...

It sounds like an efficient system to keep costs under control. You get to keep anything under this limit, which makes the limit pretty secure.

More programs ought to be budgeted that way.

Skyler said...

No, because courts can never abuse their authority, Ann. It seems that only the legislature can do that by following the Constitution and refusing to seat someone appointed by a corrupt governor selling senate seats.

Whatever a court does, in contrast, is always correct, so long as merely five people conspire to agree. And those five can never be wrong.

We'll just ignore the fact that I'm sure I've subsisted on less than this for extended periods of time in the military. Two peanut butter sandwiches for lunch is a lot of food.

George M. Spencer said...

He sounds like a nutrition hero, a role model for parents and schools around the nation.

He cut the junk out of the diets and got everyone to trim down. Probably helped stop global warming, too. Maybe they should also lower the heat in the prison and cut down on A/C use.

I wonder just how obese marijuana trafficker William Draper was before going to jail.

There is no Constitutional right to munchies.

Shanna said...

That sounds like kind of a dumb law, but it looks like he didn't do anything illegal. I would be curious to see who is complaining about losing weight, people who were overweight to began with, or people who really shouldn't lose weight. Also, if they weren't getting the proper nutrients to the point where people were having medical problems, then that should have been changed.

Anonymous said...

For an analysis I'd feel comfortable hanging my hat on, I'd need to know what was IN the consent decree.

At first blush, though, it doesn't sound like an abuse of discretion and I don't believe that it is shocking that the sheriff was sent to jail for this.

Yes-there is a statute that allows the sheriff to pocket the money he saves under the cap, but he's not being punished for embezzelment, he's under the gone for mistreatment of his prisoners.

The question really isn't could someone provide adequate nutrition at $1.10 a day for each prisoner. The question is DID they provide adequate nutrition. The Southern Center for Human Rights, and more importantly, Judge Clemon, answer the question with a resounding no.

The sheriff was jailed for violating the constitutional rights of his prisoners-I think it's fair to consider starvation cruel and unusual punishment. Factor in the consent decree, (not that I know what's in it!), and it sounds as though the judge was well within his discretion.

Ann Althouse said...

"I would be curious to see who is complaining about losing weight, people who were overweight to began with, or people who really shouldn't lose weight."

Yes, if you are obese, it takes extra calories to maintain your weight. If you eat the number of calories that would maintain a normal weight, you will lose weight until you reach that point.

Darcy said...

I think the law is obviously an invitation for abuse, and I can't imagine wanting to make money personally in this way...but I also agree that two peanut butter sandwiches and chips is not a skimpy lunch.

AllenS said...

From the Washington Post:

"At the Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Barack Obama noted that certain unnamed experts claim we could save Medicare $1 trillion if obesity rates were reduced to 1980 levels. He embraced this assertion for the purpose of illustrating how we can pay for universal healthcare relatively easily."

Maybe Bartlett could get on board with the Obama miracle tour.

traditionalguy said...

This story reminds you of an Old South that has not changed its traditions since a small adjustment after 1865. Just add in the Chain Gang and you have a workable replacement to slavery, with cruel overseers being rewarded for their meanness and a few noble enlightened aristocrats fighting to reform the system a little. Believe me the Sheriff in Alabama has all the power to either run a decent county or a corrupt and cruel county depending on his courage and the traditions of the wealthy and influential families in that county.

Edgehopper said...

Extreme judicial overreach in jailing the sheriff. If the law violates the 8th amendment on its face, strike it down; if it does so as applied by the sheriff here, issue an injunction. But jailing requires the sheriff to have broken a criminal law, and I don't see what criminal law he's supposed to have broken.

That said, it sounds like the court was within its rights to shut down the sheriff, who was acting unconstitutionally. But judges are not emperors who get to deal out any sanction they feel necessary.

Anonymous said...

Dartmouth05 -

Are you a lawyer? You don't sound like one. There were no criminal charges brought against the sherrif, and no finding that he violated any laws, thus your assertion that he was jailed for violating the constitutional rights of the prisoners is simply wrong. There was no finding that the prisoners actually suffered "cruel and unusual punishment" under the 8th Amendment.
The sherrif was jailed only for violating a consent decree. I've never heard of a public official being jailed for that reason. Normally, the court would impose a fine on the jurisdiction until the official complies. I would say that the judge clearly abused his discretion here.

Bob said...

You'll commonly see Nutraloaf fed to prisoners, even prisoners not on punishment status.

In the US Navy, I'm fairly certain that "3 days' bread and water" is still a valid punishment onboard ships at sea, and if a CO wished to haze recalcitrant sailors he'd assign 3 days' bread/water, then a bowl of soup, followed by 3 days' bread/water again.

Der Hahn said...

As an alternative, our recently retired local sherrif was one of the first in the nation to charge prisoners room and board.

I did a little checking but I can't determine what gives him the authority to do that.

TitusIAmSixteengoingonSeventeen said...

Don't get arrested in Alabama.

Dont visit Alabama.

Why would anyone visit Alabama?

What is in Alabama?

Alabama sounds so depressing.

I hate Alabama.

Zach said...

It used to be very common for quartermasters and their equivalents to be paid a flat fee for supplies and pocket the surplus. You see it all the time in histories of the Royal Navy, for example.

If you have a small government bureaucracy, you'd rather just pay a flat fee and let an independent contractor work out the details.

TitusIAmSixteengoingonSeventeen said...

I don't think I have ever done someone from Alabama.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

If you were buying food in bulk, could you provide adequate nutrition at that rate?

Don't know about the law, but I say yes to your question.
1.10 x 300 x 365 = $120,450 annually. Full allotment 1.75 x 300 x 365 = $191,625.

I would hope that the jail isn't full up all the time with 300 people every day of the year. But even so. Sure, you could adequately feed that many people on those budgets if you bought in bulk. Many of these rural facilities have their own gardens or access to local produce at reasonable rates. It's a whole lot cheaper to buy the whole hog than just the pre packaged pork chops. I would imagine they bought seasonally and in bulk.

It might not be really interesting food. It would probably be boring food. But it could certainly be nutritious food. It doesn't take much money to make huge pots of chili from dried beans, pork, onions and some spices. Cornbread and milk. With some stewed vegetables on the side. Cheap and nutritious.

I could do it.

The people who write for the NYT probably don't know how to boil water. The food in prison or in jail isn't supposed to be gourmet anyway. If the inmates still need/want to spend money on Ho Ho's and Little Debbies loaded with sugar and fat at the commissary, that's their choice.

knox said...

The whole thing really hinges on: crunchy or creamy?

Jed Sorokin-Altmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Henry Buck, I didn't claim that criminal charges were brought against the sheriff, nor did I claim that there was a finding of an 8th Amendment violation.

I merely commented on whether or not there was an obvious abuse of the judge's discretion. Ann used language like "Why was such harsh treatment [of the judge] required? Out of shock that the prisoners were treated so badly?" The judge said, "Given the testimony about the fairly blatant violations of the consent decree,..."

I worded my initial post poorly, and I'll take the blame for that. (I plead a combination of rushing out the door and early morning syndrome.) I reversed what I meant to say in the last paragraph-he was jailed for violating the consent decree, and the nature of the violation, which I feel safe classifying as a deprivation of constitutional rights, was almost certainly a factor in the judge's decision to jail the Sheriff.

Whether or not this was the right or wrong decision, I don't believe it was an abuse of the judge's discretion, assuming that the behavior was not only shocking but also actually somehow contrary to the consent decree. (Again, I don't know what was actually in said decree.)

Richard Dolan said...

Today seems to be a day for the professorial quiz, this one for lawyers and another one for docs and scientists. But OK. Here's my take.

Form the description in the article, the point of the Sheriff's jailing was to force him to come up with a meal plan that complied with the Court's prior order. Thus, it sounds like we're dealing with a civil contempt proceeding, the point of which is to coerce compliance with the consent decree. In civil contempt matters the well settled rule is that the Court uses its powers sparingly, and only to the extent necessary to obtain compliance. Frankly, I've never seen a court order a public official jailed in connection with a civil contempt proceeding. (In NY there have been lots of such civil contempt proceedings, particularly in connection with state court consent decrees about the housing of homeless families.)

Criminal contempt is a different matter, and its objective is punitive as much as (often without regard to) coercing compliance. But where criminal contempt sanctions may exceed 6 months, there is a right to a jury trial. And the routine (altough not a requirement) is that criminal contempt charges are handled by a different judge than the one who issued the underlying order.

Obviously, in this case much will depend on the wording of the consent decree, the prior history of any violations, any demonstrated recalcitrance or disrepect by the contemnor, the nature of any back-and-forth between the Sheriff and whoever obtained the decree -- in short, all of the particulars on which every case usually turns. It would also be important to know whether the judge considered but rejected for some articulated reasons the usual remedy -- a coercive fine that mounts over time until complete compliance is obtained.

But just from this brief description, it certainly sounds like an abuse of discretion -- of the grandstanding judge sort -- to me.

Anonymous said...

Edgehopper, what makes you think that jailing someone requires violating a criminal law? Criminal and civil contempt of court are both punishable by fines, jail, or both. Due process is required, but jailtime is most certainly allowable and is hardly unusual.

Anonymous said...

I'd grant you that it's an unusual response to jail a public official, Richard, but what makes unusual an abuse of discretion?

Unlike a lot of civil suits against public officials where the link between the suit and the individual public official at the top is a bit of an abstraction, here, the connection is direct and obvious. The treatment of the prisoners is a direct and intended result of the Sheriff's order. There are no questions of unintended consequences, systematic failure, lack of funding or support from the state, poor training, involvement of subordinates, etc.

Judges have wide discretion and given the facts at hand, I don't see an obvious abuse of discretion.

Richard Dolan said...

Dartmouth -- you're not focusing on the only issue in a civil contempt proceeding: what is the least exercise of the Court's power needed to obtain compliance? Here the violation was on spending too little to feed prisoners. So, to obtain compliance, the obvious remedy is to require that (a) the Sheriff disgorge what he improperly pocketed by spending too little; (b) ordering that no further reductions of the same sort be made. Remember that the rule in these cases is that the Court uses its powers sparingly, and only to the extent necessary to obtain compliance.

So what you would have to show is that jailing the Sheriff was needed to obtain compliance. Count me as deeply skeptical. The Court's ostensible reason -- serving an indeterminate time in jail will induce the Sheriff to come up with an appropriate meal plan -- pretty much defines what an abuse of discretion looks like.

But, as I said in my initial comment, it all depends of the particulars of the case. There may be some factor that made the usual civil contempt remedies inadequate here.

Anonymous said...

Fair points, Richard. Perhaps we can agree on the commonground that more information is required before really being in a position to judge whether or not this was a proper exercise of discretion?

Unknown said...

Yes, if you are obese, it takes extra calories to maintain your weight. If you eat the number of calories that would maintain a normal weight, you will lose weight until you reach that point.

Uh-oh, let's not resurrect the Gervais fatness thread again! :-)

Bender R said...

The existence of the law and the sheriff pocketing "surplus" funds are interesting, but also totally irrelevant and beside the point.

The issue is whether or not the prisoners are adequately fed, as the Constitution requires. That is the only issue. Whether it costs one dollar per prisoner or ten dollars per prisoner. Whether the sheriff gets to pocket $200,000 or whether he is forced to pay $200,000 out of his pocket to get the job done. Are the prisoners adequately fed? Period.

If the law did not exist, the issue would be the same, and the jailing of the sheriff for violating a prior order requiring adequate feeding would be proper. As it is here.

Fred said...

I was the food service director of a correctional facility. In 1994 I budgeted $.99/meal for a dietician, American Correctional Association approved 3000 calories per day diet. I would have made a small profit. Those calories are in excess of what a sedentary adult needs to maintain their weight. If the kitchen I had run had been in Alabama, I'd probably be retired now. :)

Don't feel sorry for inmates. No matter what a person is like outside of the prison, in jail they are all inmates. Their rights are better protected than any non-incarcerated citizen.

George M. Spencer said...


What were a typical day's meals?

And did you ever have to prepare the last meal for a condemned man? What were the regulations regarding that?

Anonymous said...

Fred, the relevant question isn't is it possible for the prisoners to have been sufficiently fed on the amount that was spent. The relevant question is were the prisoners sufficiently fed in this particular case.

Not all jails or prisons are the same, and I am baffled as to how you can make the blanket claim that inmate rights are better protected than non-incarcerated citizens. I find this hard to believe in ANY case, but it most certainly is NOT a universal experience.

The most recent (Fall 2008) edition of the ABA's Litigation Magazine had an article on the conditions at Mississippi's State Penitentiary. Read it, and tell me if all inmates are in good/safe hands at all times.

Jonathan said...

You could pretty easily get enough raw calories on $1.10 a day, that wouldn't be a problem. Overweight people would lose weight, until they reached equilibrium.

However, if you're margin is that low, I expect you'd have a lot food horded and stolen, and people on the lower end of the social ladder could end up having their lunch money stolen, so to speak, and up underfed.

I think the bigger problem is that I don't believe you could get 100% of the the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) in 1.10 a day. Unfortunately, there a few vitamins and minerals that are hard at that price point and if you were eating like that for years, you'd eventually build up quite a deficit could have some serious problems.

Anonymous said...

Back in the seventies I took a tour of Alcatraz, a federal prison turned into a museum on an island in the San Francisco Bay. A Thanksgiving day menu was posted outside the dining hall. It featured roast turkey with oyster stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, a vegetable or two, finishing up, as I recall, with pie and ice cream. I asked the tour guide why it was that the prisoners ate better than I did. He said that most prison riots started in the cafeteria so it just made good sense from the warden's perspective not to give anyone anything to riot about.

Darcy said...

knox: Crunchy, of course.

Harsh Pencil said...

This is the canonical problem in Linear Programming.

This is from a text on LP I pulled from the Google.

2 Linear Programming (LP)

In the 1930’s, the US military was trying to figure out how best to feed its troops. They had
been just writing down menus and ordering lots of food, but there were occasional problems
with malnourishment and there was always the worry that they might be paying far too
much to feed the troops (when you’re talking about feeding tens or hundreds of thousands of
people, spending a few cents extra per adds up to a lot of dollars.)

In this new age of scientific nutrition, they were interested in converting over to doing things
in a more principled way.

Specifically, they were faced with a problem of this form:

Each soldier needs to get 2900 calories a day, needs 10 mg of iron, 1000 g of vitamin A, 2
mg of vitamin B, 58 grams of protein, etc.

Steak (food 1) costs c1$/lb and provides a11 calories, a12 mg of iron, a13 mg of vitamin A, a14 mg of
vitamin B, a15 grams of protein, etc.

Broccoli teak (food 2) costs c2$/lb and provides a21 calories, a22 mg of iron, a23 mg of vitamin A, a24 mg of
vitamin B, a25 grams of protein, etc.

And so on through all of the possible foods that they could purchase in bulk and provide to their

The Linear program is then to choose x1, x2, ..., xN
(the quantities of each food) to minimize p1*x1 + p2*x2 + p3*x3 ... pN*xN, subject to constraints that a11*x1 + a12*x12 + ... a1N*x1N >= 2900 (the number of calories needed), that
a21*x1 + a22*x2 +... + a2N*xN >= 10 (the amount of iron needed) and so on through all the nutritional constraints.

In 1947 Dantzig developed the simplex algorithm, which solved the problem exactly.

jaed said...

The people who write for the NYT probably don't know how to boil water.

That's as may be, but do the people running this jail? Four pieces of bread plus a "small amount" of peanut butter and chips isn't a meal - and it also isn't the cheapest way to serve that many calories (chips??), although it requires no cooking. "Part of an egg and a spoonful of grits" isn't a meal either. It's possible to come up with nutritious meals for large numbers of people on surprisingly little money, but these examples ain't it. We don't have all of the context, but if these meals are typical, something's badly wrong. I'm not surprised that people are starving if that's the case, and I'm not surprised the court took extreme action.

Unknown said...

Current bulk (100 lbs+) prices for rice, beans, oatmeal (and occasionally even flour and more processed goods) are about 2 lbs per dollar (delivered by truck), regularly significantly less if bought at end of storage-life for use within a week - unlike consumer goods which are expected to have months, if not years more shelf life).

If salaries / cost of preparation is omitted (or done by the inmates) a filling if bland 3000 calories a day w/ appropriately balanced protein, fat and carbs can be had for less than 75 cents a day (and in a normal population mix about half the food served will go to waste given full portions and people stop eating when full). For a dollar a day the main meal can have more than a small portion / taste of meat content.

Studies of immigrant / undocumented families (several families in an home) incidently show that they buy in bulk if only to continue serving their native meals but in larger quantities, adults and children are good to well fed, with expenses about half the above (35-65 cents per day per person).