Bad Prison Food Is More Than a Punchline

The quality of food in prisons and jails across the country is notoriously poor. What happens when there is an incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding incarcerated people?

Breakfast at Etowah County Jail.

Across Alabama, sheriffs contend that a state law authorizing them to “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails allows them to take any money they don’t spend on food as personal income. This dubious interpretation of state law has been clearly rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it only for official purposes. Despite this, the practice continues. In January, SCHR – along with Alabama Appleseed – sued 49 sheriffs who refuse to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from money allocated for feeding people in their jails.

It’s long been understood that food served in correctional facilities across the United States is far from gourmet. Incarceration has a “gastronomic dimension,” and unappetizing food is often seen as part and parcel of the punishment incarcerated people are meant to receive. But bad prison food is more than just a punchline.

According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incarcerated people are 6.4 times more likely to contract a food-related illness than the general population. SCHR receives countless letters from people incarcerated in Alabama, detailing the meager and/or inedible meals served to them.

A new article by AL.com’s Connor Sheets highlights the gravity of the situation at Etowah County Jail, a facility which has come under scrutiny after it was revealed that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin (one of the 49 sheriffs being sued by SCHR and Alabama Appleseed) kept hundreds of thousands of dollars meant to feed people incarcerated at his jail. Entrekin has pocketed well over $750,000 from the food money account over the past 3 years.

Not Fit for Human Consumption

Benjamin Hunter was incarcerated at Etowah County Jail for roughly a year. During his time there, he frequently handled boxes of food headed for the jail kitchen. Hunter tells AL.com:

“The meat patties they feed you and call it either chicken or Salisbury steak or whatever, it’s literally for dog food. We called them starfish patties because they look more like a starfish than anything. They literally said in bold red letters plain as day on the top, bottom and sides of the box, ‘Not Fit For Human Consumption.'”

Hunter also told AL.com that he frequently handled visibly rotten chicken that was donated to the jail. “I helped load these boxes of chicken that was culled because of tumors and abscesses and deformities or it was past its time to be shipped,” he said.

As Sheets reports, those who can afford it supplement (or replace) their meals with food items purchased from the jail commissary. Those who can’t afford it face extreme hunger, food-borne illnesses, or both.

The impacts of malnutrition and starvation go beyond the physical. According to Hunter,

“Every ‘riot’ I’ve seen was because of some bulls**t they fed us. Every single one I’ve seen was because of the food. It’s not like a violent prison riot or nothing. Everybody just starts raising hell and screaming and hollering.”

Chris Bush, who had worked in the jail’s kitchen for several months, also told AL.com that once, while in lock-down, one man attempted suicide to draw attention to the fact that they weren’t getting enough food. The guards responded by bringing each man in the lock-down unit two cookies, a cup of juice, and half a peanut butter sandwich. After 3 nights, the extra food stopped coming. Hunter corroborated that during the course of his incarceration there were a number of suicide attempts in response to the dire food issues. “If they were feeding everyone enough,” Hunter said, “you wouldn’t be waking up in the middle of the night thinking your throat’s been cut because the hunger pains are so bad.”

This isn’t the first time that substandard jail food has led to unrest. In May of last year, seven inmates at Alabama’s Marshall County Jail rioted in response to the food being served at the facilities. Incarcerated people in multiple states have organized protests against Aramark, a corporation with food service contracts in correctional facilities across the country.

“Access to enough nutritious food is a human right. When sheriffs have an incentive to spend as little money as possible on feeding people in their jails, it leads to appalling deprivations like those reported by detainees at the Etowah County Jail. When officials across the state are profiting off the starvation of people in their custody, the public has a right to know, and a duty to put a stop to it,” said SCHR attorney Aaron Littman.

Read more about our lawsuit here.

SCHR Files Civil Rights Lawsuit on Behalf of Two Incarcerated Men Brutally Beaten by Officers at Georgia State Prison

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of two men who were beaten while handcuffed by officers employed at Georgia State Prison.

The Plaintiffs in the case are Shawn Andrews and Seth Rouzan. On August 11, 2017, they were subjected to beatings by members of the prison’s Correctional Emergency Response Team and other officers. Specifically, in their lawsuit the Plaintiffs allege:

  • Officers removed Shawn Andrews from a prayer service and handcuffed him behind his back. When Mr. Andrews asked why he was removed from the prayer service, an officer slammed him to the ground head first, fracturing his skull, causing a life-threatening blood clot on his brain and breaking bones in his face. Mr. Andrews was airlifted to a hospital where his skull was surgically opened to treat the blood clot and a titanium plate was inserted to close the new hole in his skull.

 

  • Seth Rouzan was in the medical unit of GSP for a psychiatric appointment. He was taken by an officer to a secluded area of the hallway where officers held him down on the ground, handcuffed him behind his back, repeatedly kicked and punched him in the back and ribs, and kicked him in his right eye.  Mr. Rouzan suffered multiple injuries after this assault, including a fractured right eye socket requiring surgery, multiple facial fractures, a concussion, and other injuries.

 

“An officer’s role is to keep incarcerated people safe. Brutally beating handcuffed prisoners does quite the opposite. This behavior has no place in a civilized society,” said SCHR Senior Attorney Atteeyah Hollie.

The Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, and seek to reveal a pattern and practice of excessive force by officers at Georgia State Prison. The lawsuit is brought against six current and former corrections employees. This is the second excessive force case that SCHR has brought against employees of the Georgia Department of Corrections in the past year – in August of 2017, SCHR filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates at August State Medical Prison, alleging that the Georgia Department of Correction’s guards used excessive force routinely.

The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia in Statesboro.  Read the filing here.

Former Prosecutors and Others File Friend-of-the-Court Brief in Support of Johnny Lee Gates

Yesterday, a unique group of former prosecutors, a former judge, and a civil rights attorney filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Johnny Lee Gates, whose 1977 murder conviction has been called into question by new evidence of systematic race discrimination.  The group, which includes former United States Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears, and former Congressman Bob Barr, argues that the evidence of discrimination is overwhelming and that it “must be fully examined on the merits and not swept away as the State desires.”

As former prosecutors, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and a former President of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the signers are dedicated to advancing a fair justice system. The conduct presented in Mr. Gates’s case, they write, “is anathema to that goal.”  In addition, they argue that the Court should reject the State’s attempt to prevent Mr. Gates from presenting the new evidence based on procedural grounds.  “The State engaged in systemic racial discrimination, hid the evidence for four decades, and now that this Court has forced that evidence into the open, the State seeks to avoid its examination.  The Court should not allow the State to do so.”

Mr. Gates is represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), who, last month, filed a supplement to a motion for a new trial, after newly discovered evidence clearly established that the prosecutors’ jury strikes in Gates’s case were the product of systematic race discrimination. In February, the Superior Court of Muscogee County ordered the State to disclose the prosecutors’ jury selection notes from Gates’s trial, as well as from other capital trials involving black defendants in Muscogee County in the late 1970s.  On March 2, the State produced its jury notes.

The notes in every case, including Mr. Gates’s, reveal a deliberate effort to keep black citizens off the jury.

The newly-obtained notes leave no doubt that the strikes were racially motivated with the goal of obtaining all-white juries:

  • The prosecutors labeled white prospective jurors as “W” and black prospective jurors as “N.”
  • The prosecutors further singled out black prospective jurors for strikes by marking a dot next to the black prospective jurors’ names.
  • The prosecutors described black prospective jurors in derogatory terms, including “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.”
  • One white prospective juror was described as a “top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that work for his construction co.”

Read the pleading here. Read the amicus brief here. 

2018 Legislative Update

Fighting uphill battles is nothing new to the Southern Center for Human Rights, and the 2018 Georgia Legislative Session certainly brought its share of challenges. The efforts of SCHR and our partners persisted into the final minutes of the session – with the Georgia General Assembly adjourning, sine die – after midnight on March 30th.  Despite the continued influence of the damaging rhetoric and policies from the federal administration, SCHR fiercely advocated for legislative changes consistent with our commitment to those affected by Georgia’s unduly harsh criminal (justice?) system. A list of criminal justice bills that passed the legislature can be found at the bottom of the blog.

Notably, we are pleased to share that SB 407, Governor Deal (and his Criminal Justice Reform Council’s) bill, achieved final passage in both chambers with unanimous votes. SB 407 includes many reforms, including changes to misdemeanor bail, increased ability for courts to convert fines and fees to community service, expanded access to retroactive first offender treatment, and improvements to behavioral incentive dates that shorten sentences.

We worked closely with lawmakers who introduced the following proactive, progressive legislative proposals that did not make it to the finish line in 2018, but will continue to be pursued in the coming years:

  • HB 768 – to ensure that people with intellectual disability are not executed in Georgia by improving the process for determining intellectual disability in death penalty cases. There was one hearing on the bill with impeccable testimony from Patrick Mulvaney, the managing attorney for SCHR’s capital litigation unit, and Lauren Lucas, GSU Law professor and director of the Center for Access to Justice.
  • HB 802 – to allow parole eligibility for people who were under the age of 18 when sentenced to life in prison and ensure compliance with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
  • HB 857 – to require that: 1) women who are incarcerated have access to feminine hygiene products and medical information; 2) pregnant women who are incarcerated are excluded from “squat and cough” searches; 3) male correctional staff are prohibited from showers and other dressing areas; 4) only female correctional staff conduct pat-down searches of incarcerated women; and 5) the location of family members be considered when making facility placement decisions for women who are incarcerated.
  • HR 1416 – to create a House Study Committee on Bail Reform consistent with the recommendation of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform to study statutory alternatives to money bond. The resolution was passed by the House Public Safety Committee but unfortunately did not make it to the House floor for a vote in time.

This year, we also had to battle several destructive measures that were wholly inconsistent with the “smart on crime” reforms passed in prior legislative sessions. This included attempts to create new crimes, increase sentence lengths, expand mandatory minimums, and try more children as adults. Disturbingly, there was also a last-minute, but unsuccessful, attempt to threaten the success of Governor Deal’s criminal justice reform efforts and preempt local bail reform in cities like Atlanta. In partnership with our allies in the Justice Reform Partnership, SCHR researched and explained the impact of proposed legislation, testified at hearings, drafted amendments, mobilized impacted communities, lessening the impact of some of these bad bills and causing others to fail.

SCHR is proud to be the convening organization for the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Partnership. The Partnership is a statewide coalition made up of over 50 organizations and individuals from across the political and issue spectrum that unite in our pursuit to pass common sense, proactive criminal justice reform legislation at the state and local level. This year, more than thirty partners co-sponsored “Justice Day at the Capitol,” bringing more than 600 Georgians from across the state to Atlanta to advocate for meaningful and effective criminal justice reform.

SCHR is grateful for the support of all our friends and partners who share our vision for a system that promotes equality, dignity, and justice. If you or your organization are interested in joining the Justice Reform Partnership, send an email to [email protected]. Together, let us build a better Georgia.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE BILLS THAT PASSED IN 2018

Adult:

  • HB 657 – Makes it a felony to knowingly give a firearm to any person convicted of a felony or on first offender probation. (SCHR’s position – opposed)
  • HB 673 – Distracted Driving Bill that requires hands-free use of cell phones and other technology. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 732 – Expands definition of sex trafficking and increases the penalty. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • HB 751 – Creates the Georgia Emergency Communications Authority. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 765 – CJ’s Law – increases penalties for hit and run accidents that result in death or serious injury. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 803 – Prohibits trafficking a disabled adult, elder person, or resident. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 890 – Creates penalties for using a fire exit after shoplifting. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • HB 834 –  Provides for the termination of a lease when the lessee is the victim of family violence. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HR 913 – House Study Committee on Incorporating Law Enforcement in the Pathway to Treatment and Social Services for Persons Having Challenges with Drug Use and Mental Health. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SB 315 – Creates the new crime of unauthorized computer access. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • SB 369 – Requires $5 of pretrial diversion fees be given to the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • SB 407 – Reforms to misdemeanor bail, conversion of fines and fees to community service, retroactive first offender, behavioral incentive dates and sentencing enhancements for certain firearm offenses. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SR 146 – Marsy’s Law – proposes an amendment to the state’s constitution to acknowledge certain rights of crime victims. (SCHR’s position: monitored)

Juvenile: 

  • HB 740 – Prohibits the expulsion or suspension of any child (preschool – 3rd grade) for more than 5 consecutive days unless drugs or weapons were involved. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SB 336 – Prohibits the provider of electronic communications services from notifying a customer about a subpoena for records used in furtherance of crimes against minors. (SCHR’s position: monitored)

Reentry:

  • SB 406 – Expands background checks for people working with vulnerable populations. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • SB 427 – Changes provisions relating to income, voluntary unemployment, and involuntary loss of income to account for a parent’s incarceration. (SCHR’s position: supported).