FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Do the crime, do the time, that's the old line, right? But convicted perpetrators are still afforded basic human rights while serving out their debt to society. The Southern Center for Human Rights recently filed suit on behalf of a group of prisoners in Decatur, Alabama. The presiding judge describes the county jail as, quote, "A Slave Ship." There, the sheriff is accused of starving his prisoners so he could pocket the profits off a lean kitchen budget. Joining us is Lisa Kung, the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Hi, Lisa.
Ms. LISA KUNG (Executive Director, Southern Center for Human Rights): Hi, how are you?
CHIDEYA: I'm good. So this case has just stunned people across the world. I couldn't believe it myself when I read about it. But I understand that there is a Depression-era law on the books that made this kind of profiteering legal. Tell us about the law and the details of the case.
Ms. KUNG: Sure. That's right. Alabama has this arrangement where the state pays $1.75 a day to the sheriffs - directly to the sheriffs for every person they have in his or her jail. Now, you and I know it's hard enough to come up with three meals a day for $1.75, and what makes Alabama special is that it allows these sheriffs to take any of the money that they don't spend on food and put it straight into their own pocket.
So last week at the hearing in federal court about this, the sheriff was forced to tell the truth on the stand, and at the end of the day, the federal judge found the sheriff in contempt, turned to the United States marshals, and told the marshals to take the sheriff into custody.
CHIDEYA: Now, taking the sheriff into custody is just, you know, something that probably the prisoners who were sitting around hungry feel is long overdue. But the sheriff issued a statement last week denying the allegations, and it reads, quote, "The Morgan County Jail served over 328,000 meals in 2008 and only received 15 complaints on the issue of food. That is a very low number, especially coming from a jail. I have never or would not ever have tolerated an inmate being fed inadequate portions or meals for any reason."
So that's his statement. What do you expect to happen moving forward with him and with this case? Do you expect him to hold on to his job? Do you expect the law to be changed?
Ms. KUNG: Well, the law - immediately after this happened, the sheriffs got around - from around the state got together and said, look, we probably should have a go at changing this law. It's really - it would be embarrassing for all of us to be exposed for the kind of money we're taking into our pockets. The sheriff in Morgan County actually had a pretty good defense that - it was his best defense. I wouldn't call it a good defense. His best defense was, everybody does it. I mean, the food is terrible everywhere.
But what really sunk in was, when it was exposed, he had to admit that he had gotten this 18-wheeler truck full of corn dogs from a friend of his. Essentially he and another sheriff split a 18-wheeler truckload full of corn dogs for $1,000, $500 apiece, just - and these are corn dogs that couldn't be sold anywhere else, and he had to tell the story of how he got these corn dogs essentially for free, and then was able to feed the people in his jail breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two months on these corn dogs and was somewhat proud of himself for having done this.
And that's really what sunk him, was it was revealed, you know, this money went straight into his pocket, and last year, he pocketed well over $95,000 while the people in his jail went hungry. And when this comes out, you know, the sheriffs around the state - this is happening all over the state, but they've been able to sort of operate in secret. They've refused to reveal how much money is being put in their own pocket, and so I think they're scrambling right now to try to save face, to try to do something to change the law. And we will see how - we will see what happens next year.
CHIDEYA: What are the ripple effects of this and the ramifications for other districts? Is other - are there any other places, first of all, that have this law?
Ms. KUNG: You know, we had thought that Alabama was unique in this way, but right after the story broke, we got a call from a sheriff in Indiana who said, look, this happens here all the time as well. I've chosen not to participate here. I feed my people a little bit better, and he was very adamant about that, you know, that this happens in other places. But it really should be changed because it's an embarrassment. It's an embarrassment to the sheriffs to be operating in this kind of system.
CHIDEYA: What do you think the value is to the conversation over prisoners' rights of having a case like this? I mean, on the one hand, it seems really outrageous, but on the other hand, it is one of these sunshine cases where there is some light that's been shown on a practice that most people never even knew about.
So what kind of ripple effects do you expect it to have as people look in general on the broader level of what people convicted of crimes deserve? Because that's one of the things we're looking at in our series, is that just because you've been convicted of a crime doesn't mean that all of your rights are stripped away. So what remains, and what should remain? Do you think this will help people dig into that issue a little bit more?
Ms. KUNG: Sure. I think you've - just a couple of points here. One is that what was happening here was in a jail. And jails are places where folks are going before they've been tried or convicted of anything. So these were - these are overwhelmingly, you know, poor folks that can't make bond who are awaiting trial.
But I think, you know, the thrust of your question is exactly right. What do we learn from this kind of case? It's no - we didn't learn anything by learning that prisoners are being fed crummy food. I think the lesson here is, you know, prisons and jails are these secretive places. They're walled off from public scrutiny. And the moment you sort of lift that secrecy, and you have people actually describe what's going on, admit what's going on, it's shocking, and it's embarrassing, and it's not the sort of thing the we can tolerate in a free society.
The food is one issue. The amount of violence, the kinds of disrespect, the poor medical care, these are the sort of larger issues that the moment you sort of - you shine a light on those issues, it becomes very apparent that prisons and jails are places that need far, far more public scrutiny than they're afforded right now.
CHIDEYA: In terms of the idea of rehabilitating people or preparing them to go back into society, obviously, jails are more transitional, but in terms of prisons - just your personal take on it. Do you think that we're making any progress in really trying to deal with the issue of re-entry into society?
Ms. KUNG: Well, the prison system is one where - it's befuddling why we don't demand more accountability. I mean, we would not tolerate any other public institution that makes things worse, hospitals that make people sicker than they are. I mean, we wouldn't tolerate that sort of thing.
If you look at the results of prison, you know, prisons have not made us any safer. It's this big question of whether prisons rehabilitate people or not has been settled for a couple of hundred years. They certainly don't. The question of whether prisons or jails do anything for the crime rate has been settled. The answer is no.
CHIDEYA: Mm hmm.
Ms. KUNG: There is no - there's essentially no correlation between the number of people in prisons and jails and the crime rate. You know, it brings...
Ms. KUNG: The basic question of what is the point of having prisons.
CHIDEYA: All right, Lisa. Thank you.
Ms. KUNG: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: That was Lisa Kung, the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and she joined us from Doppler Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.