Voters will now decide what happens to excess jail food money

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Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry in the kitchen of the Cullman County Detention Center on Tuesday, March 27. / W.C. Mann

CULLMAN – Voters will now have the final say about what happens to leftover food funds for Cullman County inmates. The Alabama Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that will put the issue on the general election ballot. The bill, already through the House, was put forward by Rep. Corey Harbison, R-Good Hope, with support from the rest of Cullman’s legislative delegation (Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview; Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle; and Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman).

If voters support the bill, it will require a local constitutional amendment relating to Cullman County to provide that all allowances or amounts received by the sheriff of Cullman County for feeding prisoners be deposited in a special account and used for feeding prisoners in the county jail, and any excess be authorized to be used by the sheriff for law enforcement purposes.

The bill also increases the sheriff’s annual salary from just more than $70,000 to approximately $86,000, which will be equal to that of the Cullman County probate judge.

“I would first like to thank our local legislative delegation for passing the local food bill out of the Alabama Legislature that changes the food bill from a personal account of the sheriff to a discretionary account of the Cullman County Sheriff's Office to be used for training, to buy equipment, and other law enforcement purposes,” said Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry in a statement.

“I would specifically like to thank Representative Corey Harbison for sponsoring the bill and Representatives Randall Shedd, Ed Henry and Senator Paul Bussman for voting for the local bill.”

Gentry continued, “Once signed by Governor Ivey, and if the citizens of Cullman County approve this local bill in November 2018, it will establish transparency and physical responsibility over the jail food account that the old 1930s food bill and current law does not allow for.

“Since I was a candidate, and having the honor of becoming Sheriff of Cullman County,  I have been committed to fixing the food bill issue.  I am grateful to be able to get a local bill passed and placed on the ballot for the citizens of Cullman County to vote on.”

On Jan. 5, 2018, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit in Hale County Circuit Court against 49 Alabama sheriffs, seeking public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they had personally profited from funds allocated for feeding inmates. Gentry was named in the suit.

According to the SCHR, many sheriffs in Alabama contend that a state law authorizing them to personally “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails permits them to take any amounts they do not spend on food as personal income. Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin recently came under heavy fire for allegedly using some of the money he retained to buy a beach house. Entrekin has vigorously denied the allegations.

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