Alec Allen has suffered from persistent nausea and other gastrological problems since 2011, when he was incarcerated in the Etowah County jail for about nine months.
Doctors have not been able to pinpoint a culprit, but the long-haul truck driver said he had a parasite when he was released, and he blames his ongoing medical issues on the food he and other inmates were served.
“They fed the inmates up there stuff I wouldn’t feed to my dogs, that’s just the God’s honest truth,” Allen said. “I guarantee that [Etowah County Sheriff] Todd Entrekin wouldn’t eat it.”
For years, inmates and advocates have complained about the food in the jail, also known as the Etowah County Detention Center. But Allen and three other former inmates who spoke with AL.com over the past two weeks have firsthand knowledge of how bad the food is and where it comes from. Three of them worked for months in the jail’s kitchen while Entrekin was sheriff and the other former inmate frequently handled boxes of food and unloaded food deliveries.
The interviews reveal new details about the jail’s inmate-feeding practices, which have come under intense public scrutiny ever since the fact that Entrekin personally kept more than $750,000 worth of taxpayer money allocated to feed inmates over the past three years became a national news story.
As sheriff, Entrekin – who bought a beach house for $740,000 in September – is responsible under state law for deciding what foods are served in the county jail he oversees. Entrekin personally pockets any money allocated by local, state and federal agencies to feed inmates in the jail that is not used for that purpose.
Large quantities of spoiled or expired meats, dry goods and other food items served in the jail are donated by companies and local nonprofits, according to the former inmates.
“They have a big hauling trailer and they go to Crossroads Church up in Albertville at least twice a month and get crackers, cereal, packs of stuff that’s past the expiration date,” Chris Bush, who worked in the Etowah County jail’s kitchen for several months in 2013, said.
“How they distribute is, let’s say in the donation they got 40 boxes of out-of-date cereal. They’ll put it in big tubs and put it on the line so they have something to put on the tray.”
Angie Oram, wife of Crossroads youth pastor Andy Oram, confirmed that Strongarm Food Ministry, which operates out of the church as a separate entity, has made donations to the jail. She and her husband both declined to provide details about the donations, and the church’s pastor, Glenn Randall, could not be reached for comment.
Larry Huffstutler, director at Strongarm Food Ministry, declined to say whether the food bank donated to the jail, directing all questions to the Etowah County Sheriff’s office.
Entrekin and sheriff’s office spokeswoman Natalie Barton did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But Entrekin saidduring a press conference last month in Gadsden that though inmates in his jail may complain about the food, he ensures that they are well-fed.
“This is a jail, this is not a bed and breakfast, Domino’s does not deliver here … but we do prepare a healthy meal that is served here three times a day,” Entrekin said. “It is true that many of our people are not happy with the food they are served.”
Several companies that the former inmates said had donated to the jail declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries. But Michael Lane, a spokesman for Keystone Foods, a Pennsylvania-based global meat manufacturer that owns a facility in Gadsden, provided a brief response via telephone.
“As a company we really try to do right by the communities where we operate. Occasionally that includes providing donations of food that we produce,” Lane said. “I believe we have included donations to the jail.”
‘Not Fit For Human Consumption’
The meaty product arrived in long, cylindrical rolls, tasted vaguely of turkey or chicken, and had a dull greyish pallor. Emblazoned in big red letters on its white plastic wrapping were the words “Not Fit For Human Consumption.”
And yet the mystery meat was frequently served to inmates at the Etowah County jail, according to the four former inmates. Sometimes kitchen staff chopped, boiled and mixed the product with pasta. Sometimes it was combined with various leftovers and made into a sort of stew that inmates call goulash. But it should never have been given to humans, the former inmates said.
“I couldn’t give you a positive ID of if it was turkey or chicken or what it was,” Allen said. “It looked like processed meat. It had a kind of a turkey taste to it, which is what made us think it was turkey.”
Benjamin Hunter, who was incarcerated in the Etowah County Detention Center for about a year in 2013 and 2014, never worked in the kitchen, but he did handle boxes containing food that was served in the jail.
“The meat patties they feed you and call it either chicken or Salisbury steak or whatever, it’s literally for dog food,” he said. “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.'”
Entrekin has repeatedly said in recent weeks that the food served in his jail is nutritious and sufficient to meet inmates’ dietary needs.
“In regards to feeding of inmates, we utilize a registered dietitian to ensure adequate meals are provided daily,” he told AL.com via email last month. “Everything that I have done is in full compliance with the law,” Entrekin said in another March email.
Three of the former inmates said they often handled donated chicken that was cooked in the jail’s kitchen and served despite the fact that it was either rotten or otherwise unfit to sell.
“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,” Hunter said.
Allen said he personally cooked rotten, donated chicken in the Etowah County jail’s kitchen.
“We would get chicken thighs and we’d have to cut the rotten s**t off,” he said. “We would get that chicken like once a month.”
All four former inmates said that Entrekin saves thousands of dollars by feeding inmates donated, expired food. The arrangement does not sit well with the former inmates, who said that they believe Entrekin serves poor food in his jail in order to keep as much of the inmate-feeding money as possible.
“He’s feeding these inmates garbage,” Allen said. “As someone who’s been in there, seeing the corners he’s cutting and everything, it all comes down to greed.”
Bush said that in order to keep expenses down, Entrekin allows inmates to be fed any food that he can get for free or at very low cost, no matter how poor its condition.
“At one point we were told that it came from an auction after a train wreck. It was a bunch of food that was damaged and stuff and we ended up feeding that to inmates,” Bush said.
“This guy’s got all the money to buy the beach house and everything, why don’t they pay someone to fix the inmate food?”
One of the four former inmates who spoke with AL.com worked in the jail’s kitchen for 10 months between 2014 and 2015. He echoed much of what the other three former inmates said, but asked to remain anonymous because he worried that he would be targeted by the sheriff’s office if he spoke out.
Like every county jail in Alabama, the Etowah County Detention Center is subject to periodic inspections by the state Department of Public Health, which it generally passes with flying colors.
Entrekin said last month that the jail undergoes “frequent audits and there have been no issues.” He did not respond last week to emailed questions about health inspections at the facility.
But two of the former inmates said that the jail is notified of the inspections days before they take place, and that Entrekin and his staff in the jail make the inmates do a deep clean before each one to ensure inspectors never see how the kitchen operates when they are not around.
“We knew three days to a week ahead of time in advance of health inspections. We spent all that time throwing away old food that we were still going to serve and scrubbing,” Allen said. “When it came time for a health inspection we would get rid of that ‘Not Fit For Human Consumption’ meat and the chicken thighs wouldn’t be there.”
While bad food is a serious problem in the Etowah County jail, inadequate portions can be even more detrimental to inmates’ health. All four former inmates said that the kitchen often does not provide inmates with enough sustenance.
Inmates lucky enough to have money of their own or loved ones willing to contribute to their commissary accounts are able to supplement meals and avoid eating some of the worst kitchen offerings by purchasing snacks and other food items from the store inside the jail.
But the former inmates said that many people incarcerated in the detention center do not have any way to obtain funds for the commissary.
Hunter said that because he “ran tattoos” in the jail, he was able to make enough money to keep his commissary account flush, but that many inmates were not so fortunate.
“I ate out of the commissary,” he said. “If you have to eat the trays, you starve. If you don’t have money on the store, you starve.”
The shortfall creates a host of problems inside the jail, according to the former inmates.
One social impact of feeding inmates inadequate amounts of poor food is that it sometimes leads to unrest, 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,” he said.
“It’s not like a violent prison riot or nothing. Everybody just starts raising hell and screaming and hollering.”
‘We were so hungry’
Under the most desperate circumstances, food-related issues can result in suicide attempts, Bush said.
“In the lockdown unit we were so hungry that a guy attempted suicide because he was trying to get attention to the fact that we weren’t getting enough food,” he said.
“He said, ‘man, I’m going to get us fed,’ and he ties a sheet around his neck and he got up on the top tier and threatened to jump if they didn’t feed us better. Forty officers responded – pretty much everyone that worked there – and talked him down from the tier. They took him away and I never saw him again.”
For the three nights following that incident, Bush said guards brought each of the inmates in the lockdown unit half a peanut butter sandwich, two cookies and a cup of juice, “and then it went back to how it was.”
Hunter said that while he was incarcerated in the Etowah County jail there were “a bunch” of suicide attempts in response to the dire feeding problems.
“I would not be scared to sit on the stand under oath and swear on a Bible to say that every suicide and suicide attempt in that jail was related to the food,” Hunter said.
“Either people aren’t getting enough good food or you get in debt because you’re trading all your food off and everything so you attempt suicide. If they were feeding everyone enough, 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.”