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Can You Eat for $1.75 a Day? Alabama Prisoners Do

80 years ago Alabama passed a law that gave sheriffs $1.75 a day to cover the cost of prisoner grub. If they didn't spend that much, they got to keep the leftover dough. Most Alabama counties still operate under this system, with the same per diem — and some sheriffs are actually making money on top of their salaries.

The precise amount of profit is impossible to figure — sheriffs buy food out of their own pockets, making tracing the bucks hard. One new sheriff said he and his wife took out a loan for $150,000 the day he took office to buy 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," he said. To see what critics of the program have to say,


Critics allege that this program ends up paying law enforcement to skimp on food could reward sheriffs for maltreatment.

Sheriffs defend the program as cost-effective for their counties and scoff at the suggestion they are making a lot of money. They tell tales of being vigilant about not wasting anything and shopping creatively. They're not off the hook — the system holds sheriffs personally liable for budget shortfalls and any lawsuits over jail food.

For perspective, the government pays schools $2.47 for serving one meal under the National School Lunch Program for low-income students. If sheriffs are able to put food on the table for such little money, do they deserve to keep the leftovers? Does this encourage abuse of prisoners? Should anyone who can provide three meals for less than two bucks be celebrated?


Join The Conversation
MindayH MindayH 9 years
As long as the food is healthy, and substantial, I have no problems with this. I think that having more than one person be responsible for the menu probably results in a variety in what is served, and there is probably more thought that goes into the menu. I am not sure about the sheriff's keeping the extra, but if they are asked to do this off the clock, then definitely I support it, if they are getting paid, not so sure.
stephley stephley 9 years
"I do not behave in ways that put me at risk of being arrested." My point was, no one should think they can't end up in jail because they behave so well. Sometimes you can be arrested for a very simple mistake that happened at the wrong time at the wrong place and turned into a very serious situation. "but even you can understand that citizens are paying for these meals." And citizens are eating these meals, and they should be fed reasonable portions of a variety of healthy foods.
Michelann Michelann 9 years
I do not behave in ways that put me at risk of being arrested. I understand that sometimes these things happen, and I have had several friends arrested. Yes, even sometimes on Fridays. 24 hours (and a few meals) later, they were still perfectly healthy. It is not fun, but it isn't supposed to be. I know nobody is telling the sheriffs to pay for it from their own money, but even you can understand that citizens are paying for these meals. The cheaper the meals, the less cost to tax-payers. If you personally think these meals are not satisfactory, I suggest you personally give up that $2.08 per meal so that prisoners can eat to YOUR standards. Furthermore, I didn't ask how much you'd spend, I asked what you'd feed them. I can't understand what kind of food you expect prisoners to be fed. As somebody else mentioned, there are many ways to cut costs that don't involve maltreatment. If you read my previous comments, you'll know that I think it isn't right to give the surplus money to the sheriffs. I believe incentivizing a streamlined program is a good idea, but if they can pocket that much money, the budget is too large.
stephley stephley 9 years
Michelin, get arrested on a Friday night then come back and talk to me. No one's telling the sheriffs to pay for it out of their pockets - they're being given more money than they're spending thus putting money into their pockets. I'd spent at least 2.08 on each meal, that's the generous spirit I am.
Michelann Michelann 9 years
Stephley, there are no criminal laws that will punish you for something you did not choose to do. Intent must be proved. Furthermore, it takes a lot more than "any reason to suspect you're at fault" to keep a person in jail. There must be a determination of probable cause by a judge in order to hold a person for longer than 24 hours (varying slightly from state to state). I think it is unreasonable for you to suggest that a person cannot live on that menu indefinitely. I'm curious to know what kind of menu YOU would write for these people, and how much you're personally willing to donate to pay for it. You seem to have an awful lot to say for somebody with a very limited understanding of the legal system.
stephley stephley 9 years
Didn't say they haven't committed crimes, what I was correcting was CHOOSE to commit crimes. It isn't as hard as people think it is to accidentally get yourself into a boat-load of trouble. Just after an accident, if there's any reason to suspect you're at fault, you MAY be arrested and taken to jail. People can swear out warrants against each other for all kinds of reasons and some innocent people end up spending a couple of days in jail until its sorted out.
UnDave35 UnDave35 9 years
I understand that this isn't a prison, but how long are they in this jail for? Long enough to be charged, and then sent somewhere else while they await trial, or released on bail? I also agree that the excess should be reallocated elsewhere. This system only encourages the sheriff's dept to be greedy swindling little bastards, and that's too much temptation for most people.
LaurenG22 LaurenG22 9 years
Stephley, I understand your argument about the money but I would be careful to say people in jail haven't committed a crime. You don't go to jail for vehicular homicide if it's an accident, you go bc you were being reckless, drunk, or on drugs.
LaurenG22 LaurenG22 9 years
Well, the prisoners at Fort Leavonworth, KS eat for 2.45$ a day... so I guess 1.75 COULD work. I agree though that people shouldn't get to keep the additional money if it's left over, it should just go back to the pot, then their would be no hidden agenda to starve or get poor quality food.
stephley stephley 9 years
I would consider MYSELF a thief if that's how I chose to handle that job. People don't always end up in jail because they chose to commit a crime. As I said earlier, any one of us could end up in jail after a car accident, charged with something as serious as vehicular homicide. Those take a while to clear up sometimes so even if we're eventually cleared, we could still sit in jail. We're not likely to wind up in prison without some active choosing.
jennifer76 jennifer76 9 years
Ok and last thing I thing that might not be taken into consideration here is the fact that lower cost doesn't necessarily equal less food or lower quality food. It doesn't have to be a zero sum game. There are a lot of ways to save money including having different vendors bidding against each other, ordering more from single vendors rather than multiple vendors, ordering less often and storing more, etc...and if the sherriff has a personal stake in the total cost, he will likely work a lot harder to streamline costs in those ways. I will say that I would be more comfortable with the excess money being returned to the sherriff's department to be spent at the sherriff's discretion than into his personal account. Like I said, I don't necessarily think this is the best possible option. But, I don't think it's a bad option.
pharm_chick pharm_chick 9 years
i read this on yahoo, and i was baffled when the sherrifs said sometimes they did make money on top of feeding the prisoners.. crazy... but one sherrif had a decent menu so i guess its possible
jennifer76 jennifer76 9 years
I was referring to your statement "please don't pretend the sherrifs care what the prisoners like". And I didn't say my husband didn't choose his career, I was responding to your statement "feed your husband this diet for a week and see how he feels". And, again I point out that the majority of people in jail aren't forced into jail. They chose to commit a crime that landed them there. You and I just don't happen to agree on whether or not that sample menu constitutes mistreatment. If it does, they are mistreating the heck out of my children here in the dirty Souf and my husband in the military. I think if the sherriff is pocketing $50,000 a year, that budget needs to be retooled. But, if the choice is whether the money should go to a dedicated public servant or criminals, I go with the dedicated public servant. And I don't consider him a "thief" for it.
stephley stephley 9 years
I pointed out that the dead sheriff pocketed thousands of dollars meant to go feed the prisoners. And meals that are similar out of choice, and your husband chose his career, are different from what you are forced to eat in jail. I don't care that much about this - I come to it from a 'what would I think I should do in a case like this' point. I'm responsible for my behavior my soul, blah blah. And I would consider myself a thief who treated people under my charge inhumanely if I did this or knew it was happening and allowed it to continue.
jennifer76 jennifer76 9 years
Stephley - I find it interesting that you feel the need to remind me that not all prisoners are "drooling psychopaths" yet you are convinced that the Sheriff is a greedy sociopath completely devoid of compassion and could not possibly ever even consider the regional dietary preferences of his prisoners. As for "feed my husband that diet for a week and see how he feels", this menu is actually similar to what he eats a lot of the time, in the field, on deployments, etc... And it may surprise you to know that free people actually cook very similar dinners for themselves around here. Heck, they go out to restaurants and buy that! Again, there may be a cultural misunderstanding here. Many people consider beans a delicious, dietary staple not a punishment.
Michelann Michelann 9 years
I wish I could get pancakes and sausage every morning. The dinner doesn't sound delicious, but it certainly isn't mistreatment. This sounds like a perfectly acceptable diet for a person in jail. However, if there is enough money in the budget to feed these people and have the sheriff walk away with that kind of profit, Alabama obviously needs to adjust the food budget.
mazdagirluk mazdagirluk 9 years
A lot should change in 80 years...
stephley stephley 9 years
Jail not prison Lady. The loan was because the first sheriff died and all the money for food was in his personal bank account so it became part of his estate. Until the state sent the new sheriff money to feed the inmates, he had to pony up from his own pocket. Wait a minute - these are jails, not prisons. Like county jails. I wonder how many inmates there are to feed anyway. Or is some sheriff in a little podunk town laughing all the way to the bank?
ladychaos ladychaos 9 years
Um, why are prisoners even getting any kind of equal treatment? They have committed crimes and our tax dollars are paying for them? Why? I never agreed with the penal system...there's no reason for people in prison systems to have more benefits (like cable, heat, food, etc), than a homeless person who has never committed a crime. Pfft. Sorry to get off topic. I don't think I understood the article too well though. It didn't really make sense about the $150,000 loan...
stephley stephley 9 years
Eat it for a week and see if you still think that.
raciccarone raciccarone 9 years
Considering Alabama is a third world country, a dollar is really like three down there so it's not that bad.
KJerabek KJerabek 9 years
"two pancakes and syrup, sausage and milk for breakfast; peanut butter sandwiches, chips and Kool-Aid for lunch; and white beans, turnip greens, fried squash, cornbread and sweet tea for dinner." Sorry but this does not sound like their being underfed. Not too mention I'm sure this is an example and the meals change day to day. I also don't think it is fair to say the sheriffs don't care about the inmates. How do we know?? Who are we to say these sheriffs are evil people in it for the money and the prisoners are good people. I mean I'm not for starving them or feeding them just ramen, but we don't need people committing crimes because they have it better in jail. That being said, I think it would be a good idea to figure out a new financial system, if for nothing more so the sheriffs aren't being accused of cheaping out on human beings.
KrisSugar KrisSugar 9 years
I mean, I work for a public entity. If there is money left over in the budget, it certainly doesn't get doled out to all of us who did a good job budgeting. It gets put back into the pot! We can't just give money away because we have extra lying around.
KrisSugar KrisSugar 9 years
this doesn't make much sense to me. I think I am going to have to agree with Stephley here. Money allocated to feeding prisoners should feed the prisoners. if there is money left over, it should be put back into a general fund, or reallocated for the next year. It makes no sense to me that it should go into a Sherrif's pocket. IN fact, it sounds wrong. Isn't that taxpayer money? Am I missing something here? I'm even more confused by the fact that $1.75 per diem was established 80 years ago and never adjusted for inflation. While I don't think prisoners should be spoiled in prison, I don't understand how 1.75 per day gets you proper nutrition.
stephley stephley 9 years
When a dedicated public servant saves by giving cheaper, possibly inferior but maybe not, medicine is that okay? If they save money at the transportation dept by using cheaper, possibly inferior but maybe not, engine parts, is that good? If we let every public servant keep the money they save the government, the military will soon find itself using capguns. Please don't pretend that the sheriffs care what the prisoners like -you know they aren't taking meal surveys. I don't object to beans, its the whole idea of cheaping out on other human beings because you can make a little money off it. Try feeding your husband that diet for a week then come back and tell me how he's feeling.
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