By keeping an eye out for free fruits and vegetables and unexpected bargains, like a truckload of corn dogs, Sheriff Mike Blakely and the Limestone County Jail staff is able to control the rising cost of housing and feeding prisoners.
The ability to do so translates into a savings for the city of Athens, which houses its prisoners at the county jail until they bond out, serve their sentences or transfer to state prison.
The Athens City Council will consider Monday whether to approve an agreement with the Limestone County Commission and Blakely for new three-year prisoner and jail contract. Under the proposed contract, which extends from September 2017 to September 2020, the city would pay the county to house those people arrested by Athens Police Department. (APD books those it arrests but does not have a jail, only some temporary holding cells.)
What seems notable about the proposed contract is the cost of housing prisoners and the cost of food has not increased in three years, when the last contract was approved by the council. The new contract calls for charging the city $43 day for each city prisoner held in the county jail. It also calls for charging $4 per prisoner each day for food.
Prisoners don't rave about jail food in any city, county or state, but that is to be expected — it isn't Momma's cooking. Blakely said the state reimburses the county only $1.75 per person per day for meals.
“It's been $1.75 a day for God knows — since the '50s,” Blakely said.
So, how does the county jail manage it?
“You have to make sure you do a good job,” the sheriff said. “Luckily, several times we've been able to get fresh vegetables and fruits, but it's a challenge.”
The corn dog effect
Several years ago, Blakely and then-Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett split a truckload of corn dogs and used them for their prisoners, saving them both money and giving prisoners something they don't usually get. In that instance, a truck driver pulling a load of corn dogs decided to quit his job but not before breaking the seal on the load and taking some corn dogs for himself. Because the load was not intact, the vendor refused delivery. The trucking company, which would be covered for the load, offered to give away the corn dogs to whomever would pay to bring the load from Montgomery back up to North Alabama. Blakely and Bartlett agreed to split the transportation costs and were able to use the food, which was perfectly good, in the jails instead of it being thrown away.
“I think ours lasted about eight months,” Blakely said. “I don't think Bartlett's lasted as long.”
As for the daily cost to house prisoners, the city simply pays a percentage of the total cost of the jail. For example, Blakely said, if the city has 10 prisoners and the county has 90, then the city would pay a tenth of the cost.
Blakely said the jail does the best it can to keep costs down. He said the county tries to work with the city, and he believes the current costs are a fair price.
“We try to be good neighbors with the city,” Blakely said. “As long as we're not losing, we're well ahead.”
He said his jail could help ease state prison overcrowding by offering to house state prisoners — 50 to 60 more — if the state would pay the county $43 a day instead of the $15 it currently pays the county. He said the state during Gov. Bob Riley's tenure paid to house 30 to 40 prisoners out of state in Mississippi and Louisiana, so he believes the arrangement would be cheaper than that.