Twelve years after then-Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was locked up in his own jail for failing to adequately feed inmates, people who have been incarcerated recently in the Morgan County Jail say the current sheriff is following in Bartlett’s footsteps.
Eleven people who were incarcerated in the Morgan County Jail since Ron Puckett took office as sheriff in January 2019 told AL.com over the past three weeks that the jail is again providing inmates with inadequate amounts of poor-quality food.
The men and women, who served terms ranging from three days to two years, described stays marked by drastic weight loss, illnesses they attribute to bad food, and repeatedly begging loved ones for money to buy food in the commissary to avoid eating the meals served in the jail.
The Morgan County Sheriff’s Office has struggled for years with feeding inmates. Both Bartlett and his successor, Ana Franklin, landed in federal court for mishandling their jail food responsibilities.
Puckett said in an interview in his office in Decatur on Monday that the claims are unfounded, and that the jail’s food is “not what mama cooks, but it’s nutritious and dietician-approved.”
But Terry Coleman, a 58-year-old Decatur resident who was released from the jail in April, said “the food is so bad on your stomach” that he frequently had days-long bouts of diarrhea, a complaint echoed by four other people who were recently incarcerated in the Morgan County Jail. Coleman said he lost 50 pounds over the course of the 637 days he served in the facility for third-degree robbery.
“It’s really bad, man. They ain’t got no dietary technicians in there. The inmates really run the kitchen and they don’t know how to do it,” Coleman said. “The food really is gross. It’s shit. I lost a lot of weight because I tried to live out of my box [the commissary.]”
Two slices of bologna
Like most of the people who spoke with AL.com for this story, Coleman said lunch and dinner at the jail often consisted of nothing more than iced tea or artificial juice powder mixed into water and four small slices of white bread served alongside either two paper-thin slices of bologna or about two tablespoons of peanut butter.
“They serve you just bologna and bread. Two slices of bologna – real thin, you can see through it – and white bread,” he said. “No side dishes, nothing else.”
Copies of what Mike Swafford, public information officer for the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, said are recent weekly menus for the jail show that two sandwiches are the norm for lunches in the facility. The menus indicate that inmates are served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as lunch entrees three meals a week, bologna sandwiches twice a week, and egg salad and pimento cheese sandwiches once each per week. The menus state that lunches also include four ounces of rice, mashed potatoes, beans or vegetables – which Swafford said typically come out of a can – and either a piece of cake or a brownie.
“There’s days where there’s peanut butter back-to-back, and you may get bologna twice a week,” Swafford said Monday before giving AL.com a tour of the jail and its kitchen. “There’s limited options when it comes to $2.25 a day per inmate. That’s the [state] food allowance.”
Some of the claims the recently incarcerated people made are nearly identical to testimony Morgan County Jail inmates gave in federal court that contributed to a federal judge’s decision to have Bartlett arrested and jailed 12 years ago.
In 2001, a lawsuit over jail conditions prompted a federal consent decree ordering Bartlett to serve inmates “a nutritionally adequate diet.” In 2009, then-U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon held Bartlett in contempt of court for failing to follow the decree. The case made national headlines and Bartlett was dubbed “Sheriff Corndog” after he admitted he and another sheriff paid $500 each to purchase and split a tractor-trailer full of corndogs, which they then served to inmates three meals a day for weeks.
Clemon wrote in a court order that meals served in the jail were “woefully insufficient to satisfy the normal appetites of adult males. After eating each meal served by the Jail staff, the inmates remain hungry.” He noted that some inmates reported recurring hunger pangs and losing weight due to undernourishment, noting that one claimed to have lost 50 pounds. Clemon also wrote that people incarcerated in the jail relied on food from the commissary to supplement the paltry portions.
Clemon’s order stated that lunch in the facility was often no more than bread “with a small amount of peanut butter or an exceedingly thin” bologna slice, chips, and tea or a sugary beverage.
For dinner, he wrote, entrees were usually two meat patties or hot dogs, a side of beans or vegetables, and bread. Breakfast was eggs, grits or oatmeal, a slice of bread, and a drink. At all meals, Clemon wrote, the food was bland, unseasoned, and often poorly prepared.
Bartlett’s successor also ran afoul of federal law as sheriff. Franklin, who became sheriff in 2011 after defeating Bartlett in a 2010 runoff, was sentenced in 2019 to two years of probation and 300 hours of community service after pleading guilty to a federal charge of willful failure to file a tax return in 2015.
Franklin made headlines for taking $160,000 worth of public funds allocated to feed people incarcerated in the Morgan County Jail in 2015 and loaning $150,000 of it to Priceville Partners, a crooked used car lot co-owned by a federal felon who was later indicted on theft charges.
In 2018, Morgan County voters approved a local constitutional amendment that ended the longstanding practice of allowing the county’s sheriff to keep unspent jail food money.
‘All molded up’
Terry Teague, a 36-year-old who said he does yard work and professional wrestling for a living, said he moved to Cullman recently in an attempt to avoid going back to the Morgan County Jail. He has been locked up there numerous times both before and since 2019 and says that he worked in the jail’s kitchen for a time but was taken off cooking duty after he refused to continue preparing the poor food that was being served to inmates.
“We’d unload the trucks. There’d be mold on the bread, mold on the food, and they’re still putting it in there and cooking it. The lettuce, the cheese, everything they got is all molded up,” he said.
But Swafford, the sheriff’s office’s spokesman, said he does not believe there is any truth to the complaints six people who were recently incarcerated in the jail made to AL.com of spoiled food making people sick.
“If that would’ve occurred, medical would’ve had a history,” he said. “If that was the case, with our phones and our video chats and everything, we’d have mamas up here complaining all day.”
Swafford added that a health inspector tours the jail kitchen each month and that the facility always passes the inspections.
Kayla Scott, a Decatur 26-year-old who works as a line cook in a steakhouse, said the jail’s food is “nasty, it be cold, sometimes it’s not even done. To be honest, I wouldn’t feed it to a dog.”
She said dinner is the worst meal in the jail, where she has served multiple stints over the past decade, including nine days last June for failing to appear in court to review her payment plan for more than $30,000 of court-ordered fines, fees and restitution.
“One day [in June 2020] they fed us – it was supposed to be Salisbury steak and it was completely horrible. The gravy looked like water with food coloring in it, and the steak wasn’t even done, it was red on the inside,” she said.
Karris Jones reported similar conditions during multiple periods of incarceration in the Morgan County Jail since 2019.
“For breakfast, you get a biscuit and some eggs and some hard and watery grits,” he said. “For dinner, it depends, I guess, on the day. The worst thing I had up there was something called beef stroganoff and it’s just a bunch of stuff mixed together. It ain’t even real meat; it’s artificial. I don’t know what it is; it’s like prison meat.”
The jailhouse menus the sheriff’s office provided to AL.com showed that dinner entrees vary and include items like Salisbury steak, chicken patties, chili and rice, “turkey ham,” and hot dogs, served with servings of one or two side dishes like french fries or canned vegetables, a daily slice of cornbread, and a “fruit beverage.”
Swafford said the sheriff’s office rarely receives complaints about food from people serving time in the jail.
“That’s why I was surprised when I heard it from you. Really, since 2019, food doesn’t really come up,” he told AL.com on Monday. “We look into any complaints that come to us and try to determine if there’s something to it or not. And if there is, we try to fix it.”
Five recent inmates who spoke with AL.com said the jail regularly serves a processed meat product that is marked unfit for humans to eat.
Both Coleman and Teague said they saw inmates prepare and serve the meat product.
“The worst food I had in there is the chicken. It’s a meat byproduct,” Coleman said. “Go in the freezers and look at the boxes, they say ‘not for human consumption.’ It’s not chicken wings or whatever, it’s like a patty.”
During the Monday afternoon tour of the jail’s kitchen, two incarcerated kitchen workers were in the process of plating what the jail refers to as “charbroil patties” – pre-formed discs, the ingredients of which were not known by either kitchen workers or Swafford – with a slice of cornbread and a scoop each of mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas. The menus provided by Swafford indicate that the meals constituted a typical dinner in the jail.
Swafford denied that the jail serves anything that is not safe for human consumption and said that the sheriff’s office purchases most food from a food service provider, though he noted that it sometimes receives donated food from local churches.
Puckett said he believes the jail serves healthy, balanced meals and that he does not “know what [inmates’] motives could be” for complaining about the food.
“It doesn’t surprise me because no one likes being in jail and some people might not like what we serve,” he said. “We don’t serve anything that’s not edible.”
Twelve hungry hours
Every day in the Morgan County Jail, breakfast is served at 4 a.m., lunch is at 11 a.m. and dinner is at 4 p.m., the recently incarcerated people said. The kitchen almost never serves food at any other time.
That leaves 12 hours without any meals, and the meals that are served are inadequate, according to all eleven people who spoke with AL.com about their recent experiences in the jail.
“They ain’t feeding you at all. It ain’t even enough for a baby,” Jones said. “All night you get no food. If your folks don’t have no money to send you, you go hungry. And the food they give you – a kid would still be hungry.”
Swafford said the jail’s menus are based on a diet of 1,800 to 2,000 daily calories. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that men between the ages of 21 and 35 years old consume 2,400 calories per day if they are sedentary and 3,000 calories per day if they are active.
“We think we do a pretty good job based on the number of people we have in here and we’ve had limited complaints,” Swafford said. “It’s jail food. It’s not going to be what you want or what you’re used to, but at the end of the day, does it meet the nutrition standards and the calorie count the dietician sets up? Yes.”
Scott said some inmates skip meals to avoid getting sick.
“The food that they give us in Morgan County, it’s not even suitable … I seen some people that did eat it and some that didn’t,” she said.
“Most of the time they just force themselves to eat it, and some people won’t even eat. They’re so hungry they have to get store [commissary items] from other people.”
She said the quality of the food has declined since her first stint in the jail eight years ago.
“It looks like just slop. I think the food was better in 2013 than it is now. It’s awful, it’s ridiculous,” she said. “They really don’t care about you in the Morgan County Jail. The way they treat you is awful. I know you’re supposed to be punished, but it’s not right how they treat the people.”
Teague said the food in the Morgan County Jail has been bad for years. He says he will never eat another corndog because he is one of the people who were served two corndogs three times a day in the jail for weeks in 2009.
“The food issue’s been a bad habit over there,” he said. “I mean, I’m not saying they deserve steak and gravy. But they don’t treat them right.”