Twenty years ago or so, a truck driver quit his job, but not before he cut open the load and broke the seal on the shipment when he took some corndogs. The trucking company offered the rest of the load for free to anyone would cover the cost of transporting the cargo from Montgomery, Alabama.
Two sheriffs — one from Morgan County and another from Limestone County in the north — raced to the scene and hauled the corndogs back to their counties. The Morgan County sheriff fed the detainees in his jail two corndogs a day and netted himself $112,000 over three years in proceeds from his penny pinching.
That sheriff, Greg Bartlett, was eventually christened “Sheriff Corndog” by the first Black federal judge in Alabama, U.W. Clemon, when detainees sued about the lack of food. The inmates sought to enforce a court order, entered in 2001, that required Alabama’s jailers to adequately feed the people they confined. Bartlett’s corndog play violated that order and earned him a night in his own jail for a taste of his own meats.
A distribution pattern that bordered on systematic starvation had persisted in Alabama jails for years, expressly authorized by statute. A 1939 law had been interpreted to allow local sheriffs to keep any leftover money in the meal kitty. The law was a remnant of a time when sheriffs’ wives would cook for the people in county custody and its goal was to free these local law enforcement leaders from paperwork’s bane.
Naturally it incentivized them to spend even less of the money the state provided for inmate meals so that they could recoup more for themselves. Oftentimes, an incoming sheriff had to borrow money because their predecessors had emptied the accounts on their last day. It was so brazen that meal money was often deposited directly into sheriffs’ personal accounts.
The corndog story, combined with a revelation from a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against then-Morgan County sheriff Ana Franklin that she had lent $150,000 to a failing used car dealership, and the 2018 revelation that another sheriff used about $750,000 of meal money to purchase a beach house on his $93,000 annual salary, finally spurred the Alabama legislature to pass statutes that banned the pocketing of inmate food budgets as well as to almost double the daily investment in inmate meals from $1.25 per day for three meals to $2.25.
Generally, food policy is a mix of national, state, and local statutory and regulatory law.
But not so for prisons. Courts, not lawmakers, regulate prison and jail meals by deciding whether a meal violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, the Alabama statutes are among a few correctional food laws. The lack of prison food law means that relief for an incarcerated person who needs a special diet or who isn’t consuming enough calories takes a long time and is restricted to those detainees with the sophistication to file and prosecute a civil complaint
Courts, though, don’t stick their fingers in prison pies: they limit themselves to three areas of carceral comestibles.
First, the sanitation of serving, a matter in which courts are generally loath to get involved, has to be a consistent violation.
The second issue courts grapple with is what special diets a prison has to provide. Often inmates have special dietary needs, either for health conditions like diabetes that require certain calorie counts or protein portions or religious reasons.
The last issue is whether prison food — or the deprivation of food — is a legitimate form of punishment. In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Hutto v. Finney—the first case filed by an inmate against a department of correction that succeeded — and held that rule breaking generally isn’t cause for losing a meal or having to consume some amalgamation of leftovers, mixed together into a loaf and baked (a meal sometimes known as Nutraloaf.)
Eating “grue” or “gruel” as it’s sometimes called, might be constitutional for a few days, but long term administration of it violates an inmate’s rights. While denying inmates adequate sustenance for a few days because of an emergency like a natural disaster or a man-made disturbance is legally protected, keeping food from incarcerated people as a means of behavior control is strictly prohibited.
The American Correctional Association, which accredits prisons, discourages the use of food as a disciplinary measure, but in a reality that would be tolerated only in corrections, compliance with the accrediting agency’s food standards is voluntary. A detention facility can be accredited without obeying any of the rules of running a prison or jail.
As to a minimum of calories that needs to be served to people living in carceral spaces, there is none. The United States Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on the adequate number of calories needed for a prison kitchen to avoid constitutional scrutiny when William Welch, an inmate at Saginaw Correctional Institution in Michigan appealed to the nation’s highest court in February 2017. Welch is Muslim and alleges he was served only 1300 calories during the fast of Islamic high holiday of Ramadan when two bagged meals were delivered to him; one before sun-up and one after sundown.The Supreme Court declined to take Welch’s case or to count inmate calories.
All cases examining what the Constitution would have required wardens to feed inmates require that prisoners be provided “reasonably adequate food.” “A well-balanced meal, containing sufficient nutritional value to preserve health, is all that is required” according to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1977, when detainees in the El Paso jail made myriad Eighth Amendment claims against their jailers, including the fact that they weren’t crazy about prison fare. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, making the Fifth Circuit’s pronouncement the law of the land.Most of these complaints about food didn’t surface for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), the state agency that takes custody of prisoners sentenced for state crimes. That’s not because the ADOC cared well for its wards.On the contrary, ADOC’s failure or seeming inability to protect the health of the people it confined was severe. It was so bad, in fact, that litigation and courts forced the department to fulfill such basic responsibilities of discerning whether an inmate was diabetic or not and needed insulin; some were experiencing seizures from low blood sugar and others lost their vision or lost toes to amputation.Another suit alleged that the mental health care provided by the department didn’t pass constitutional muster; inmates were taking their own lives
.One civil action filed by the Department of Justice late during President Trump’s presidency, alleged that the State of Alabama doesn’t protect people form “prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff” according to the Department of Justice’s own press release. But throughout all of these indictments of ADOC’s performance, meals in Alabama prisons seemed passable, at least not worthy of complaint, even to people in the know.
Birmingham, Alabama attorney Frank Ozment who has represented inmates for years, said: “Obviously, Alabama has had some well-publicized problems with food in jails…In terms of denying food to people in custody in prisons [as opposed to jails] I've not seen that as a systemwide issue here.”That was, until inmates went on strike in September 2022. Then a few corndogs per day would have been a boon.