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Alabama In the New York Times and on NPR: Southern Sheriffs, Archaic Laws, and Colorful Criminals

Posted: Jan 12, 2009

From Sut Lovingood: Yarns Spun by a Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool to Smokey and the Bandit, southern sheriffs have characteristically been portrayed in literature and film as greedy, exploitive, unjust, immoral, and even cruel. This derogatory stereotype of the southern sheriff has persisted for well over 150 years. In one of the Sut Lovingood tales (1867), George Washington Harris has Sut describe growing up in abject poverty and in mortal fear of the sheriff. Sut says "Tu this day, ef anybody sez 'sheriff' I feels skeer," and in the next paragraph he declares "no country atwixt here an' Tophit kin ever 'lect me to tu sell out widders plunder, ur poor men's co'n...."

Last week the sheriff of neighboring Morgan County in north Alabama was tossed in the clink for a night when he was charged with underfeeding his prisoners. He was released the next day after an admonition from the judge and his promise not to pocket the money left over from feeding the inmates but to put it in a special fund for future use. It is hard to believe there could be any money left over from the tiny meal allowance ($1.75 per inmate in some counties), but apparently there was enough for Sheriff Bartlett to realize approximately $212, 000 in a three year period. Meanwhile, his prisoners got thinner.

In defense of the sheriff, if there can be a defense, it must be noted that an archaic Alabama law (still effective in 55 of 67 Alabama counties and dating from the 1930s when sheriffs were paid less than subsistence wages) allows the sheriff to keep any monies that remain in the coffers once the prisoners have been fed. What Sheriff Bartlett did may have been unconscionable, but it was not against the law. In fact the law condoned and supported it. Apparently, anyone in jail for committing a crime is lucky to be fed at all, much less adequately (or so the law would seem to imply).

In the county of Limestone where I reside, the sheriff is a personal friend of mine, and I presume, a great lover of corn dogs. He told the Athens New Courier  that his prisoners loved corn dogs and wanted them more than the twice a week they were served. He said that he had gotten a great deal on an entire 18 wheeler load of them and even sold part of the truck load to Sheriff Bartlett because they were a lot better than the "pancakes on a stick" that Morgan County was getting. Although he defended the practice of pocketing remaining funds, the Limestone County sheriff declared that his prisoners were well fed and that any extra money went into a slush fund in case food prices escalated or there was unexpected food loss. Or perhaps, I thought with a grin, no more bargain truck loads of corn dogs.

As shocking as it is to hear that it is possible for a sheriff to make thousands of dollars a year by not feeding prisoners an adequate diet, the bottom line is that the law is
outrageous and archaic and needs to be removed from the books.

So there we were again—the state of Alabama—plastered over the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and dozens of web sites. As if that were not enough, I was listening to Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, the news quiz show on NPR, this weekend when I heard the word Alabama. Oh not, not again, I thought. Turns out some fellow in Alabama was arrested for trafficking in crack cocaine, but being the entepreneur that he was, he was accepting gift cards in exchange for the drugs. And where did this enterprising young criminal reside? In my very own home town of Athens, Alabama.

The south, you gotta love it.

If you are interested in more about such characters as Sut Lovingood or want to learn more about the literature of the south, watch this site for the upcoming series Southern Literature: Roots and Branches.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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