BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - 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. But exactly how much is something of a mystery because state auditors do not have access to sheriffs' private accounts.
How could anyone turn a profit feeding men and women for an entire day on less than the price of a Coke and a bag of Fritos? Sheriffs practice Depression-style frugality and rely on such things as day-old bread, cut-rate vegetables, and cheap inmate labor.
Critics contend that Alabama is, in effect, paying law enforcement to skimp on food and may be rewarding sheriffs for mistreating prisoners.
"It's a bad system, and it ought not be that way," said Buddy Sharpless, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.
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.
The few sheriffs who would discuss the arrangement defended it as cost-effective for their counties and disputed any suggestion that they are making a lot of money.
"If you've got the most lucrative food account in the state, you're not getting rich," said Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.
They noted, too, that it's not all gravy for them: The system makes them personally liable for budget shortfalls and, possibly, lawsuits over jail food.
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 into personal accounts.
In Morgan County, which includes Decatur, a state audit found that Sheriff Greg Bartlett spent $163,991 feeding inmates and personally received an additional $103,947 for two years ending in May 2005. But Jones said there was no way for auditors to determine how much of the money that went to the sheriff was profit, because sheriffs may be buying food out of their own pockets. Bartlett did not return calls for comment.
When Etowah County Sheriff James Hayes died in October, thousands of dollars in jail-food money went to his estate because it was kept in his personal accounts.
His successor, Todd Entrekin, said he and his wife took out a personal loan for $150,000 the day he took office to purchase jail food until his first state payment came through.
"It's the most money I've ever borrowed in my life, even more than for my house," Entrekin said.
According to legislative researchers, the $1.75-a-day-per-inmate system in Alabama dates to 1927, back when sheriffs and other county officeholders in many states were paid fixed fees for services performed and allowed to keep whatever was left over.
All but 12 of Alabama's 67 county jails remain on the fee system, with the state paying a total of $5 million to 55 sheriffs last year.
National corrections groups said they did not know of any other state with a system like Alabama's, though some individual counties may use a fee system.
The $1.75 fee was fairly generous at the time, with a reasonable profit built into it for the sheriffs. Besides the $1.75, sheriffs get additional state payments of as much as $11.25 a day for the entire jail. But in a jail with hundreds of inmates, that works out to just a few extra pennies per person for food.
By comparison, the government pays schools $2.47 for serving a single free meal under the National School Lunch Program for low-income students.
Cherokee County Sheriff Jeff Shaver said he has figured out how to feed prisoners on $1.75 a day and still turn a little profit, and he doesn't get complaints about the grub.
"These people eat better here than they eat on the street, and they eat three times a day," Shaver said.