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, read more.
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?