He took away the inmates’ gym, turning it into a religious retreat center and then prison housing. He donated the bleachers and weights to local schools and community groups. Now, under the watch of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, inmates at the Bristol County House of Correction spend their allotted recreational time locked and caged in a concrete yard, where they can play basketball and do push-ups.
According to Hodgson, that’s not mean. It’s love. “Love is absolutely the right word,” he says. “I don’t want to see these people come back here. Their whole life is clutter. They are left on their own to figure things out — hygiene, manners. We try to teach them life lessons.” And the harder the time inmates serve, the better the lesson.
If you’re looking to challenge Massachusetts’ reputation as a bastion of bleeding-heart liberalism, this jail is a good place to start. There’s no coddling going on here. Over the years, Hodgson has removed televisions from inmates’ cells, reduced meal portions, and sent out work crews shackled together with ankle chains. This year, Hodgson offered up inmates to help build President Trump’s border wall and is trying to revive a plan — rejected previously by the state’s highest court — to charge inmates a $5-a-day incarceration fee. And, in what may represent the prison’s most dramatic template for deprivation, he’s preparing to cut off all in-person family visits.
Hodgson, 63, has been called Attila the Hun. He has also been called a Joe Arpaio wannabe — a knockoff of the former Arizona sheriff who became famous for his anti-immigrant stance and harsh treatment of prisoners, was convicted of criminal contempt of court, and was recently pardoned by Trump. Hodgson flicks away such criticism as “nonsense” and “baloney.”
Still, he delights in flouting the state’s deep-blue image — and has benefited politically from doing so. His success is a reminder that the reflexive left-wing politics of booming Boston and Cambridge don’t represent the entire state.“He’s a hard law-and-order guy, and that still has a lot of appeal in Massachusetts, among not just Republicans but unenrolled and conservative Democratic voters,” said Republican strategist Rob Gray.
Like Trump, whom he supports, Hodgson goes with his gut and plays to the same crowd. He let federal immigration authorities build a detention center on prison grounds, and collects $99 a day for each detainee — money he grudgingly turns over to state officials, whom he calls hypocrites for taking the revenue while decrying the policy that generates it.
A passion to “control the flow” of immigrants, an abiding belief in law and order, and an aversion to overly protective government — Hodgson’s themes may sound familiar. Long before Donald Trump ran for president, significant swaths of Massachusetts were already prime Trump territory. In the 2016 Republican primary, Trump got nearly 50 percent of the vote. In the 2016 general election, Trump won only 30 percent of the statewide vote. But in Bristol County, he got 42 percent. One GOP strategist said that every Republican running for governor thinks at least once about Hodgson as a potential running mate, and then dismisses him as too polarizing and controversial. On Beacon Hill, Hodgson might be an outlier, but beyond it, he’s a prominent spokesman for Trumpachusetts.
Hodgson’s way of running a jail is unpopular with academic researchers and criminal justice reformers. Bristol County accounts for about 25 percent of suicides in Massachusetts county jails since 2006, even though it has just 13 percent of the statewide jail population, according to an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, published last May in The Boston Globe. But Hodgson blames the statistics on “the kinds of people who come in here.” He has anecdotes about former prisoners who allegedly thank him for tough policies that set them straight, but no data to back up his assertions.
Then again, the split between research-driven policy wonks and practitioners of a more visceral style of politics defines the essence of these times.
It wasn’t always like that. If Hodgson now reigns as the sheriff of Trumpachusetts, he got there in the first place thanks to Governor William F. Weld — the epitome of genteel Brattle Street Republicanism and the mentor of Governor Charlie Baker, the quintessential moderate technocrat.
In his heyday, however, Weld understood the power of law-and-order appeals. As a candidate, Weld promised to reintroduce prisoners to “the joys of breaking rocks.” When, in 1997, Weld appointed Hodgson to fill a vacancy in the sheriff’s office, he more than fulfilled the spirit of his pledge.
Since then, criminal justice reform, once a liberal preoccupation, has growing bipartisan support at the national level. Weld didn’t return my messages seeking comment about Hodgson, but, in an interview last year with CommonWealth magazine, he appeared to back off the tough-on-crime approach of the early 1990s. “I think the United States is undergoing a reexamination of that,” he said. As Ray Howell, the political consultant who managed Weld’s 1994 re-election campaign and now runs his own PR company, sees it, “The state has evolved. The sheriff hasn’t.”
Whether that’s a liability for Hodgson is another question entirely.
Hodgson grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., as one of 13 children. He was the kid who attended daily 6:30 a.m. Mass with his parents, just to gain more quality time with them. He attended a Catholic military high school and studied criminal justice in college, but has no degree. He was a police officer for about six and a half years, then worked in landscaping, home improvement, and his father’s Washington, D.C., travel agency.
The installation of video equipment to replace in-person family visits infuriates civil liberties lawyers and prison reform advocates.
In the early 1980s, a brother-in-law who worked in sales suggested he interview for a job with an office furniture supply company in Boston. What clinched the interview, said Hodgson, was his line that as one of 13 siblings, “If there was one cookie left in that cookie jar, I got it.” In 1988, Hodgson moved to New Bedford, where he went to work for a brother who was an accountant. By 1992, he decided to run for a spot on the New Bedford City Council. “I always tell people my first involvement in politics was when I was born. You had to learn early on in life to find your place in the litter,” he said.
Hodgson’s scrappy, no-frills life story connects with an old blue-collar tradition in Massachusetts politics, which crossed party lines and culminated in the governorship of conservative Democrat Ed King. That wing has been losing traction since 1982, when Michael Dukakis beat back King to reclaim the state’s top office. From Dukakis to Weld to Mitt Romney, from Deval Patrick to Baker, the state’s leaders, Democrat and Republican, tend to hold Harvard degrees, and they’re guided by an erudite, inside-Route-128 mindset. At the local level, however, pockets of that old conservative strain still exist, and Republican candidates are not ashamed to mine them.
“It’s old-school Massachusetts Republicanism — tough on crime and somewhat hostile to immigration,” said political scientist Peter Ubertaccio, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Stonehill College. “It’s always been there. Where Hodgson is going with it, he’s moved the party in the direction of Donald Trump.” Hodgson’s willingness to embrace “tactics that seek to humiliate people who are incarcerated” make it less comfortable for Republicans like Baker, added Ubertaccio.
Hodgson attained his current position the old-fashioned way, through political connections. Around 1994, his brother laid him off. A friend mentioned the possibility of a job in the sheriff’s office, and he ultimately became assistant deputy superintendent for investigations. A few years later, he heard rumors that his boss, Sheriff David Nelson, was thinking of retiring. Another friend urged him to ask Weld to appoint him to the job. In May 1997, Weld did.
With Hodgson, Weld’s tough-on-crime legacy in this state lives on. He easily won every election since his appointment, a rare feat for a Republican in Massachusetts, and had no opponent in 2016. There’s also a lot of patronage involved in running a prison, which helps any sheriff maintain a network of support.
Today, Hodgson oversees the Bristol County House of Correction in Dartmouth; a Women’s Center and ICE detention center in the same location; and the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford. There are 581 full-time employees, 326 full-time security officers, and about 1,261 inmates. At the House of Correction, about 41 percent are pretrial, meaning they have not yet been convicted of the crime for which they have been charged.
How does he measure success? By “lowering the costs for taxpayers. Making sure systems are there for the staff. Making sure we are focused not on recreation but on rehabilitation.” He said that in the last round of national accreditation, federal officials praised the high level of staff morale. He doesn’t care about inmate morale.
He makes no apology for his policies. “The great failure of our nation,” he said, was telling people that when it comes to criminals, “if you lock ’em up, let ’em hang out, watch TV, play cards, volleyball, basketball, whatever they want to do, they’ll learn their lesson just by being locked up and they’ll come out being better people. It was a lie.”
While he insists his job is to help convicted criminals get to a “much better place in life” and “add more tools to their life school toolbox,” inmates have filed suits against Hodgson. His latest policy venture infuriates civil liberties lawyers and prison reform advocates. The installation of video equipment to replace in-person family visits is nearly complete. The change is supposedly being made for security reasons, after drugs and other contraband were delivered to inmates by visitors.
Other Massachusetts sheriffs run their jails very differently. For example, Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian believes access to family support networks are critical not only to inmates, but to the overall safety and well-being of prison staff. As for Hodgson’s offer to send inmates to build a border wall or help out with hurricane relief, Koutoujian said he did some number-crunching and puts the tab at $26,000 a week for a work crew and security.
Hodgson’s celebrity is a sore point. “I think there’s a real level of frustration in that all of the great work we are doing on behalf of our communities is never brought to the public’s attention,” said Koutoujian, a former Democratic legislator and onetime assistant district attorney. “We’re changing lives. We’re saving lives and saving taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, we can’t get the public to pay attention to that because of a number of proposals that simply fly in the face of my philosophy and the philosophy of my colleagues.”
Hodgson, meanwhile, freely flexes his political muscle, sometimes to the embarrassment of Baker. Minutes after the governor delivered the oath of office to Hodgson for his fourth six-year term as sheriff, Hodgson made his personal offer to then President-elect Trump to make Bristol County inmates available to help build that border wall in Mexico. Through a spokesman, Baker later issued a careful statement that said, “The Baker-Polito administration is thankful for the valuable community service inmates in Bristol County have provided through work programs and would prefer they continue to offer those services closer to home.”
He did not denounce Hodgson’s proposal as crazy or inappropriate. Baker may be the most popular governor in America, but Trump, while unpopular overall in Massachusetts, has a 71 percent favorability rating with Massachusetts Republicans.
In the first year of the Trump era, Hodgson has much of the Massachusetts political establishment right where he wants it: aggravated by his showboating policies, but leery about calling him out for them. There may not be great numbers, but there’s power in Trumpachusetts.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.