Corruption occurs in our legal and political systems because the laws of our country allow it. When a public servant can siphon off tax dollars for personal enrichment, when a politician receives donations from corporations to prioritize law making in favor of corporate interest, when lawyers make more money by plea bargaining cases instead of demanding fair trials, when sleeping in your car is a punishable action, when financial advisors put their own profits above the interests of their clients, when citizens are fined for collecting rainwater… it is because, the laws of this country ALLOW it.
This idea is so vital to comprehend; the reality we live in is governed and therefore engineered by manmade laws. The outcomes of poverty, inequality, concentration of wealth and power, limitation of personal freedom, the master slave relationship in our work places are all brought into existence by laws. Law is the DNA of our society, and its authority is actually derived from us, the people.
I know that law is a cumbersome topic, and not at all fun to wade into. But, in this case, what you do not know can and will hurt you. This is the risk of willful blindness; you can cover your eyes all you want but that will not make the threat against you disappear. By not knowing how law works the mass of people cannot see when or how those laws are being used to screw them over.
Recently, I read an article published by CBS that I could not get out of my head. It described such a shameful use of the legal system by an Alabama sheriff that I felt compelled to investigate the matter.
The CBS article from 3/16/18 states;
“An Alabama sheriff legally used more than $750,000 of funds meant to feed inmates to purchase a beach house. Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin told The Birmingham News he follows a state law passed before World War II that allows sheriffs to keep “excess” inmate-feeding funds for themselves.
Entrekin reported on state ethics forms that he made “more than $250,000” each of the past three years through the funds. The sheriff’s annual salary is more than $93,000.”
“In a statement to NPR, Entrekin said the “liberal media has began attacking me for following the letter of the law.”
It sounds crazy doesn’t it? After some digging I discovered that the original law which authorized this sheriff to siphon tax payer money into his own pocket was passed in 1939. Think about that, the Alabama legislature has kept a law on the books since the Jim Crow era which authorizes and thereby incentivizes Sheriff’s to skimp on inmate meals in order to turn a personal profit. Context is important, so I gathered a few quotes that shine a light on the societal and political climate of Alabama during the passage of this law:
“The Depression’s impact on Alabama lasted throughout the 1930s and, for some Alabamians, into the early 1940s, which was longer than the nation as a whole. Alabama’s economy began to recover only after the advent of the World War II defense buildup, though the effects of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the war caused major changes and dislocations.”
“With declining income, unpaid teachers threatened to strike, and the governor implemented a state income tax, borrowed nearly $500,000 to fund relief efforts, and backed legislation to raise borrowing limits, but his efforts fell short, and many localities closed schools or reduced hours. In hopes of reducing costs, Miller, a committed prohibitionist, also disbanded the state’s Law Enforcement Department, whose main task was upholding Prohibition.”
“In 1930, the American Communist Party established a branch in Birmingham and found a receptive audience for more radical changes to the failing economy… In response to the growing Communist presence and labor unrest in the mills and fields, Birmingham passed an “anti-sedition” law that punished citizens who were critical of the American government and employed a “red squad” of police officers tasked with rooting out Communist sympathizers.” ~ “Great Depression in Alabama” by Matthew L. Downs, University of Mobile
A but more research uncovered yet more truly Orwellian impositions that witnessed the powerful wield their authority to encroach on the rights of the citizenry:
“Formal and informal policies of repression, such as separate public accommodations, limited access to suffrage, and strict control over black labor, were put into place between the 1870s and the 1890s, and Alabama’s 1901 constitution rested upon white supremacy as a basic element of governance. The supremacist underpinnings of the constitution persisted until judicial decisions in the 1950s and 1960s…”
“In the wake of the Plessy ruling, Alabama convened another constitutional convention in 1901. Delegates had as one of their main goals the establishment of a state based on white supremacy, and they enshrined separation between whites and African Americans in the constitutional text. Sections 178 and 180 through 182 included provisions specifically designed to disenfranchise black voters. Section 256 established an entirely segregated school system. Section 102 prevented the legislature from ever allowing interracial marriages.: ~ “Segregation (Jim Crow)” by Julie Novkov, The University at Albany, SUNY
Obviously these quotes do not paint a full picture of historical Alabama, but they certainly leave one with the sense that laws made during such a tumultuous and racist time should be scrutinized and changed if needed. And yet, my research revealed the legislature has made no attempts to simply correct the statue by adding verbiage which directs all excess funds to prison improvements, rehabilitation and counseling for inmates, road repair, school lunch programs, or literally any other state/county program. Any of these would be a better use of tax dollars than the backdoor funding of luxury housing for each new sheriff who gets elected.
I was unable to access online the original text of the law from 1939, but I did find the current Alabama code which authorizes said backdoor dealings, it reads;
“2009 Alabama Code Title 36, Section 36-22-17: Disposition of fees, commissions, etc.
“All fees, commissions, percentages, allowances, charges and court costs heretofore collectible for the use of the sheriff and his deputies, excluding the allowances and amounts received for feeding prisoners, which the various sheriffs of the various counties shall be entitled to keep and retain, except in those instances where the county commission directs such allowances and amounts to be paid into the general fund of the county by proper resolution passed by said county commission of said county, shall be collected and paid into the general fund of the county. (Acts 1969, No. 1170, p. 2179, §2; Acts 1978, No. 619, p. 879, §1.)” *Emphasis is mine
So, there it is, in black and white. Sheriffs shall be entitled to keep and retain tax dollars. It is maddening how easy it would be to fix this problem; just a minor change to the wording would do it. Well, if you haven’t abandoned this article in disgust yet, allow me to take you a bit further down the rabbit hole. The original expose publication which drew my attention had detailed a similar incident in 2009, where a Morgan county Sheriff had actually gone to jail so I began searching to see exactly how many similar or related incidents had been exposed. Here is what I found;
“A lawsuit against 49 sheriffs in Alabama is asking them to hand over personal documents to see if, and by how much, they have profited off of feeding inmates. Six North Alabama sheriff’s are on the lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Those counties and sheriffs include: Frank Williamson (Colbert County), Shannon Oliver (Franklin County), Rick Singleton (Lauderdale County), Gene Mitchell (Lawrence County), Scott Walls (Marshall County), and Chuck Phillips (Jackson County).”
“Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin wants a federal judge to let her keep as personal money any unspent funds that she receives for feeding inmates. Although Alabama sheriffs in general are allowed to keep leftover food fund money, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office has been excluded because of claims Franklin’s predecessor underfed the inmates in his care.”
“Franklin, who is embroiled in a legal battle with the Southern Center for Human Rights, is scheduled for a hearing at the federal courthouse in Decatur on Friday at 1:30 p.m. At that hearing, the sheriff’s attorneys are expected to argue that a years-old consent decree in a lawsuit against the county does not apply to Franklin and she shouldn’t be held in contempt. The decree says the Morgan County Sheriff must spend all food funds on inmate meals.”
“A court hearing was scheduled last month when the Center filed a motion saying Franklin should show cause for why she shouldn’t be held in contempt of the decree. The center argued that Franklin should have been held in contempt after removing $160,000 from the inmate food account. The sheriff loaned $150,000 of the money to a now-bankrupt, corrupt used car dealership, Priceville Partners, LLC, that was co-owned by Greg Steenson, a convicted felon.”
“A federal judge ordered an Alabama sheriff locked up in his own jail Wednesday after holding him in contempt for failing to adequately feed inmates while profiting from the skimpy meals. U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon had court security arrest Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett after dramatic testimony from skinny prisoners about paper-thin bologna and cold grits. The hearing offered a rare look into Alabama’s unusual practice of letting sheriffs pocket money left over from feeding inmates.”
“Clemon said the Alabama law allowing sheriffs to take home surplus meal money is ‘probably unconstitutional,’ but his ruling was limited to the finding that the court order was violated.” *Emphasis is mine
“Mobile County Sheriff Jack Tillman resigned April 11 after pleading guilty to perjury and an ethics violation involving his dealings with excess food fund money for the Mobile County Metro Jail. In a plea deal, Tillman gave up any claim to $350,000 in the food fund account. He agreed to pay back nearly $13,000 he withdrew from the fund and placed in a personal retirement account, which resulted in theft charges.”
“Mobile County Chief Assistant District Attorney Nicki Patterson said she believes that some officials have misinterpreted the 1930s state law. She said it’s not intended for sheriffs to profit from the food fund.”
Filed in April 2001 Maynor v. Morgan County, Ala. Case profile from University of Michigan Law School (Posted July 26, 2012 & Updated October 11, 2017)
“Case Profile: “On April 5, 2001, attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights and private counsel filed this class action lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Alabama, challenging the conditions of confinement at the Morgan County Jail. The jail, which was alleged to have been old, antiquated, and structurally unfit for human habitation, housed both pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners. Plaintiffs alleged that the Jail was severely overcrowded and that inmates were subjected to uncivilized and hazardous conditions, which included inadequate medical care, poor sanitation and lack of fire safety. Plaintiffs alleged violations of the First, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as class certification. Concurrent with the complaint, plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction.”
“After a hearing, on April 17, 2001, the District Court (Chief Judge U. W. Clemon) certified the case as a class action and entered a preliminary injunction. The Court noted the deplorable conditions at the Jail and found that the principle cause of the overcrowding was the State’s failure to transfer “state [prison] ready” inmates…”
“On September 25, 2001, the District Court (Judge Clemon) made the injunction permanent and also approved a Consent Decree that was reached by the parties. The Decree provided for changes in housing and living conditions, health care and diet, security and fire safety and access to the courts…”
I took the liberty of reviewing the additional case documents from the 2001 civil lawsuit, and though I will only quote one paragraph, I do recommend reading the full PDF of the complaint found here.
“Inmates at the Jail are not provided with nutritionally adequate food. All meals are prepared by inmates, and no food service personnel are employed by the Sheriff’s Department. The inmate cooks have not been trained in hygienic food handling practices, and have never been treated for contagious diseases including AIDS, TB, and venereal disease. The meals are often served cold, and the inmates eat in their cells which, as described above, are unsanitary and filthy. The food is inadequate for the nutritional needs of the inmates and is unappetizing and unwholesome No facility exists within the Jail where the inmates can eat their meals in comfort. Portions of food are often inadequate to satisfy hunger”
I could have kept searching beyond 2001 but reading case law is time consuming and it only captures when the behavior is so egregious that legal action is brought. I imagine this skimming has been going on continuously since 1939, but I do not have access to the records which could prove this hypothesis. I’m quite confident that what I have documented for the reader thus far speaks loudly enough on its own. And, I hope that this article has at least demonstrated how dangerous it is to leave law in the hands of only those who stand to benefit from the responsibility.
It is my belief that the only reason people have not stood up to demand changes to such laws before now, is they have been kept ignorant of the cause and effect law has in their lives. When the mass of people can recognize how a law is damaging their community, they then have the capacity to demand that law be changed by their law makers (civil servants/representatives). Those in control do not want this to happen. The purpose of keeping the masses unaware is to shift the power needed to right such wrongs securely into the hands of those who are incentivized not to do so, by what is commonly known as a “gravy train’. This corrosive incentive structure combined with the social engineering of ignorance has given rise to a disgusting status quo, one which still reigns in the state of Alabama and beyond. Click To Tweet
Whether we are ready to accept it or not the solution for many of our societal problems is quite simple, we must make the laws work for us and not allow them to work for special interests, corporations, politicians, government officials, or any individual rich enough to buy themselves a lawmaker or two. If our system refuses to teach us what we need to know then we must educate ourselves about local laws. This will allow communities to organize around achievable goals to change the laws which do not serve the people. This process can be replicated up the legal food chain until we have a society that reflects the values we as people actually hold.
Should the people of Alabama be moved as I was by knowing fully what their government is allowing the Sheriffs to do to them, I pray they take action. I hope they demand transparency in the allocation of state and county funds, and demand the removal of any civil or public servant which appropriates tax dollars for personal gain. Most importantly, I hope they demand their pitiful excuse for lawmakers add wording to AL Title 36-22-17 which closes permanently the loop hole allowing Sheriffs to rip off the tax payers of Alabama.
To those not living in Alabama, you can only bear witness for your fellow countrymen. Now you know how corruption and graft are made legal in America, who the responsible parties are, and how easy it would be to fix such problems. The only question remaining is when is enough going to be enough, for you? #AlabamaSwag
“The real cost of corruption in government, whether it is local, state, or federal, is a loss of the public trust.” ~ Mike Quigley
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