Immigration advocates and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson both dug in Saturday in the wake of a melee Friday evening over coronavirus testing at an immigrant detention facility Hodgson runs in North Dartmouth, highlighting a growing debate over the safety of such facilities right now.
The simmering debate flared up Friday when 10 detainees refused to be moved to a medical unit at the nearby Bristol County House of Corrections for coronavirus testing, chasing Hodgson and guards from the room and briefly taking over part of the facility before being subdued by SWAT teams.
Lawyers for some of the detainees — who Hodgson is holding for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement — accused the sheriff of retaliation over a lawsuit that calls for them to be sent home for their own safety. While Hodgson, long an advocate of stricter immigration policies, invited reporters in to see the damaged facility and accused immigration advocates and politicians of fueling the conflict.
“It’s all part of an orchestrated plan,” he said.
The episode comes amid a continued surge of cases in Massachusetts.
State health officials Saturday reported 130 new deaths from COVID-19, bringing the total to 3,846. There were 1,952 new confirmed cases, for a total of 66,263 since the pandemic began. Those numbers are largely in line with those of recent days, though the state shared modest good news on one metric: The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 fell for the fifth straight day, to 3,601 — the lowest figure in more than two weeks. And testing continues to ramp up, with just under 300,000 coronavirus tests now performed statewide.
Nationwide, 522 detainees and 39 employees at ICE facilities have been confirmed with COVID-19, though none in Massachusetts. The Bristol County facility, which Hodgson first opened in 2007, has emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over whether ICE detainees, most of whom are awaiting deportation hearings, should remain in custody in places where social distancing can be hard, rather than sent home and monitored.
Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based legal aid group, has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 147 detainees, saying they should be sent home for their own safety, rather than stay in the Bristol County facility, which is essentially a large room where dozens of people sleep, eat, and bathe in close proximity. So far, a federal judge in Boston has ordered 47 to be sent home, with another hearing set for next week.
Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said Hodgson’s actions Friday appeared to be retaliation against detainees over the lawsuit.
“It’s extremely concerning to us," he said. “This sounds like punitive measures that were designed to be retaliatory. Sheriff Hodgson has made no secret that he does not like that this lawsuit is going forward.”
What exactly happened Friday remains in some dispute.
Hodgson said it began about 5:20 p.m. when 10 detainees who had complained of COVID-19 symptoms — coughing and diarrhea — refused to go to the medical wing of the nearby county jail for testing. They said they were concerned about potential contamination at the jail, where a few staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, and asked instead to be tested in the immigration facility. Hodgson said no — concerned, he said, that they could infect their fellow residents.
When Hodgson himself confronted one detainee — “a real con man,” the sheriff called him — who was on the phone at the time, he said the man started yelling and “other detainees rushed us.” One, he said, threw a chair. The sheriff said after he and the handful of guards fled the room, detainees used clothes dryers and tables to barricade the doors, damaged bathroom fixtures, and punched holes in the walls. At about 7 p.m., a Bristol County special operations team and K-9 units reentered the room and subdued the detainees, in part by “shocking” them, Hodgson said.
Saturday morning, he showed reporters the aftermath: Broken toilets, water fountains ripped from the wall, a shattered internal window, thick glass scattered on the floor. Mattresses, tables, and detainees’ belongings were strewn about the room. On a window, someone had scrawled “Help us,” and “El Sheriff es racist.”
Fixing it all will cost about $25,000, Hodgson said, and the unit could be closed for weeks or more. On Saturday, the 10 detainees who had complained of symptoms were being held in medical isolation units, where Hodgson said they’ll stay until they agree to be tested or 14 days have passed. The other 16 detainees are being quarantined in another part of the jail.
Meanwhile, politicians began to weigh in.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who has sparred with Hodgson over immigration issues in the past, drove from North Dartmouth to see the facility, then posted a tweet saying she was denied entry. A spokesman said the jail has been closed to visitors since the coronavirus outbreak began. Reporters — under escort — were invited to visit Saturday.
US Representative Joe Kennedy called for an independent investigation and release of security footage to “ensure accountability,” as he wrote on Twitter. Senator Ed Markey, who Kennedy is challenging in this fall’s Democratic primary, also called for an investigation and the release of detainees who pose no safety risk.
Hodgson said his investigators will review security footage themselves and determine what charges may need to be filed against detainees involved. He said he’d welcome Kennedy for a visit any time, but that the congressman “ought to be ashamed of himself” for politicizing the situation.
“He may be running for Senate, but you don’t play games with my staff,” Hodgson said.
Meanwhile ICE, which has long contracted with Bristol County to house detained immigrants, issued a statement praising Hodgson’s office for quickly restoring order.
“We continue to maintain our strong confidence in the professionalism of the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office staff, a vital partner in our effort to keep the community safe,” said Todd Lyons, acting director of enforcement and removal in the agency’s Boston office.