The sheriff says he’s following the law. The inmates say they’re going hungry.
According to a string of reports from AL.com, Sheriff Todd Entrekin of Etowah County, Alabama, has pocketed over three quarters of a million dollars intended for inmates’ meals, buying himself an expensive beach house, among other items, while leaving detainees eating rotten or contaminated food. Not long after acting as a source for AL.com’s reporting, one local man found himself charged with a felony by Entrekin’s office.
Entrekin has been taking advantage of a state law, passed before World War II, that allows sheriffs to keep for themselves any excess taxpayer dollars intended to feed inmates in their jails. He’s one of 49 Alabama sheriffs named in a lawsuit filed in January by human rights groups alleging abuse of the law. The groups say that because Alabama sheriffs have complete discretion over what inmates eat, the law incentivizes sheriffs to cut costs on food.
In response, Entrekin, who is running for reelection this year, has come out swinging, calling the claims “fake news” churned out by the “liberal media.”
Entrekin did not immediately return TPM’s questions seeking comment.
Entrekin bought a $750,000 beach house, spent food funds on lawn mowing
Entrekin has admitted to accumulating extraordinary sums in what he calls his “food provision” fund. In forms filed with the Alabama Ethics Commission and obtained by AL.com, Entrekin reported he made “more than $250,000” per year over the last three years in excess government funds intended to feed inmates.
The sheriff has been cagier about where that money went.
AL.com reported that despite pulling in an annual salary of around $93,000, Entrekin and his wife in September purchased a $740,000 four-bedroom house on the Gulf Coast, and own several other properties as well.
In a March press conference, Entrekin adamantly denied using inmate-feeding funds to buy a beach house, insisting that he and his wife sold a condominium they owned to cover the $592,000 mortgage.
But AL.com surfaced other purchases, including a series of checks Entrekin used in 2015 to pay a local teenager for mowing his lawn. Matthew Qualls, now 20, showed the newspaper copies of one of the checks, which was printed with the words “Sheriff Todd Entrekin Food Provision Account.”
Inmates say they were forced to eat rotten food, went hungry
In a complaint filed in Hale County circuit court, lawyers for the Southern Coalition for Human Rights say they receive frequent letters from inmates throughout Alabama reporting that their food is “inadequate in quantity or nutritional value, spoiled, or contaminated, such as with insect or rodent droppings, or foreign objects.”
Conditions in Entrekin’s Etowah County jail are particularly well-documented, thanks to AL.com’s interviews with former inmates who worked in the kitchen. They routinely served up a meat product whose plastic wrapping was labeled “Not Fit For Human Consumption.”
Expired or contaminated food — processed mystery meat, rotten chicken, cereal past its expiration date — is donated to the prison by local non-profits and corporations and repurposed into meals, the former inmates told AL.com.
Inmates who refused to eat the spoiled food go hungry. That’s led to inmate unrest and, in at least one occasion detailed by the newspaper, a suicide attempt.
Entrekin said in a March press conference that his facility always passed inspections with “flying colors.” Calling the meals served at his jail “nutritious, healthy and balanced,” Entrekin cracked that the inmates can’t expect Domino’s, grandma’s cooking, or “cake on their birthday”
“This is a jail, this is not a bed and breakfast,” he said.
A source who spoke out against Entrekin was arrested
Four days after Matthew Qualls went on the record with AL.com about his lawn-mowing work for Entrekin, he was arrested for the first time on an anonymous tip.
Officers from the Rainbow City Police Department arrested Qualls at an apartment in town after receiving a call that marijuana smoke was emanating from inside. They charged him with second-degree marijuana possession, drug paraphernalia possession, and felony possession of a controlled substance for possessing Adderall pills without a prescription, per the newspaper’s report.
Then the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office got involved.
Qualls was subsequently charged with a second paraphernalia charge, a second felony controlled substance possession charge, and, most significantly, felony drug trafficking, for which some Alabamans have been sentenced to prison for life. Though the total amount of marijuana buds found in the apartment was well under the 2.2-pound state threshold for trafficking charges, Entrekin’s office decided to count the full 2.3 pound weight of a large container of weed butter found on the premises when calculating Quall’s charges, even though there was only about half an ounce of weed in it.
Rainbow City Police told AL.com that they would not have made such a decision. Etowah County’s Drug Enforcement Unit said they interpreted the regulations differently.
Entrekin blames the “liberal media” for the controversy over his actions
As the bad headlines have piled up, Entrekin has become increasingly vented at the “liberal media,” and its “miscellaneous fake news.”
At his March press conference, the sheriff lashed out at reporters who “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” blaming the press for scaring people from running for office by promoting “false attacks” and “half-truths.”
“That’s what’s wrong with politics today,” Entrekin said, describing himself as the victim of a “political smear campaign.”
The sheriff went on a similar tear during an interview this week with the Gadsden Times, describing the frequent tours inspectors make of his facility and accusing AL.com of printing “the very definition of bogus news.”
“This is the same media that argues against the death penalty for murderers, against prison time for drug dealers and against deportation of criminal, illegal immigrants,” Entrekin said.
Other sheriffs have also profited from inmate-feeding funds
Entrekin is only the latest in a long series of sheriffs who have profited from this law.
Ledgers provided to SCHR by Monroe County Sheriff Thomas Tate show that Tate pocketed around $110,000 over a three-year period in “excess” funds. As AL.com reported, that sum rose each year, even though the per diem amounts paid to his office by the state, municipal and federal government remained the same between 2014 and 2016.
In one infamous 2009 incident, Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was jailed by a U.S. district judge for underfeeding inmates while pocketing tens of thousands of dollars. Bartlett managed this, in part, by shelling out $500 for “half of an 18-wheeler load of insurance-salvaged corn dogs,” which he fed to inmates for two meals a day for weeks, as local station WHNT reported.
Bartlett’s successor as sheriff, Ana Franklin, argued in federal court last year that there was nothing improper about her decision to loan $150,000 from her inmate’s food fund to a now-bankrupt used car dealership. Allegations that inmates were receiving reduced rations, like “a sandwich with half a slice of cheese on it,” were, she said, unrelated to Franklin’s decision to keep what she deemed additional funds.
Franklin settled with the court, returning the funds and paying a $1,000 fine. She remains in office.
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