Prison-cafeteria-JCR.jpgStand down, Jennie Craig, Weight Watchers and Dr. Atkins. There’s a new kid in town, The Dixie Diet, and we are proud to say it peels off pounds.

Here’s how we do it. First, we put you in prison. Then we spend between $1.13 and $1.75 per day to feed you. Then a couple of years later, you are a nice emaciated specimen with gum disease and bone loss. Strangely, not all prisoners appreciate this chance to lose weight.

Last week in Tennessee, a federal judge ordered a Robertson County Jail inmate moved to another detention facility after he and other inmates complained about inadequate food at the jail.

U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell heard more than five days of testimony, during which inmates stepped on scales in the courtroom to document their weight. One fellow said he lost 100 pounds during 19 months in the small jail about 25 miles from Nashville. Another, confined at the jail since April awaiting a hearing, told the judge he had lost 16 pounds during his incarceration. He measured 6-foot-3 and weighed 149 pounds when he stepped on the scale. (You might note that this prisoner had not yet been convicted of a crime, and yet he had been placed on the Dixie Diet, so Campbell ruled that he should be moved “to ensure that he does not experience any further weight loss.”)

In this particular Tennessee county jail, an outside vendor, ABL Inc., was spending between $1.13 and $1.24 per inmate meal. The menu consisted of bologna, peanut butter sandwiches, sloppy Joe sandwiches, turkey, noodles, bread, cabbage, cheese, grits, oatmeal, milk, Kool-Aid and, infrequently, green beans (but never all on the same day). The bread was often moldy, inmates said.

Here in Alabama, there is mighty strong incentive for sheriffs to place county inmates on The Dixie Diet. You see, a 1930s law allows our sheriffs to decide how much of their annual budgets they will use to feed county prisoners, and how much they want to keep for themselves. That’s right: Our lawmen can POCKET THE REST.

Sheriffs in 55 of Alabama’s 67 counties make profits operating their jail kitchens (there might be more, no one is sure). Good taxpayer money is theirs to use for, say, a nice new bass boat. (National corrections groups do not record any other states with a system like Alabama’s. At least not one that’s codified.)

index_sheriffpic2The 2009 winner of the Best Dietary Sheriff Profiteer was Morgan County’s sheriff, Greg Bartlett, who, over the past two years has pocketed $212,000 in prison budget leftovers. Disgruntled hungry inmates at his lockup earlier this year brought a lawsuit against Bartlett with help from the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. It came to light that meals in the Morgan County jail were so small that inmates were basically forced to buy snacks from a store the jailers operated. Prisoners testified before Federal District Judge U.W. Clemon in Birmingham that they spent hundreds of dollars a month on chips, oatmeal pies and candy bars at the jailhouse store just to keep from starving. (But we assure you, The Dixie Diet worked despite prisoners’ best efforts to obtain sugar, trans fats and sodium in junk food.)

In one instance, Bartlett and a neighboring sheriff got a deal and split the $1,000 cost of an corndogs18-wheeler of corn dogs. Prisoners – many of them painfully thin – told Clemon that they ate nothing but two corndogs per day for months. According to one Associated Press report, the head of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association said that prisoner complaints are common around the state. “You’re never going to be able to satisfy them,” said Bobby Timmons.

Judge Clemon took a dimmer view of the prison menu. He ordered Sheriff Bartlett (whose base salary is $64,000 a year) to be jailed until he came up with a plan to provide inmates with nutritionally adequate meals, as required by a 2001 court order. Bartlett spent one night in his own jail before signing a consent decree. Given that Alabama law allots a minimum of a buck-seventy-five per day per inmate, Bartlett probably didn’t have to think too hard about menu options.

Clemon could not impose specific dietary details in the Morgan County consent decree because there are no pesky federal minimum caloric standards for state prison systems.

Laws aside, have you tried to eat on $1.75 per day? What would you buy and prepare for under two bucks, day after day, without getting rickets and scurvy pretty quick?  If you wanted to really stretch to get nutrition, you could make a menu of a cup of brown rice, an egg and a half-can of sardines, on one day. On the next, an orange, a bowl of oatmeal, the other half-can of sardines and a small banana.

Prisoners’ meals, testimony showed, consisted of a few spoons of grits, a piece of bread and part of an egg for breakfast; two white bread slices with a smear of peanut butter at lunch, and a small portion of undercooked bloody chicken for dinner.

(Georgia prisoners, by the way, don’t get lunch on the weekends or Fridays, but officials say inmates get 2,800 calories for men and 2,300 for women. This fiscal year, Georgia slashed almost 10 percent from the Department of Corrections’ $1.1 billion budget.)

The question you might be asking at this moment (work with me, please) is, when will the Alabama Legislature change the law so that sheriffs do not pocket money intended to feed prisoners? We have an answer for you: No time soon. You see, members of the Legislature need the sheriffs in their districts during campaign years. The sheriffs often provide the cars or drive the candidates around from small town to small town. The sheriff is the one who says, officially, that “State Sen. Forbush Spivey gets the law and order vote.”

No one wants to piss off the sheriffs who are supplementing their salaries with the food budget. Ergo, no one’s going to pass a bleeding-heart liberal law against The Dixie Diet.

For more information see:

*Georgia Department of Corrections:

*American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project:

*National Institute of Corrections:

Gita M. Smith

Gita M. Smith

Gita M. Smith is a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer who covered Alabama -- yes, the whole state -- for the paper's national desk where she fell under  the dangerous influence of Keith Graham and Ron Taylor.  She writes flash fiction at 6S, Thinking 10 and fictionaut.