Attorneys for detainees at the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center are seeking to question Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson under oath about a recent, high-profile melee at the facility over coronavirus testing, according to a motion filed Monday in federal court.
As part of an ongoing class action suit, the attorneys asked a federal judge to require Hodgson to sit and discuss the Friday incident, which has sparked calls from federal lawmakers for an independent investigation and stoked concerns about the handling of the coronavirus threat inside jails.
Hodgson has said the melee took place after detainees refused testing, attacked corrections officers, and caused around $25,000 dollars of equipment damage to the facility. Hodgson, long an advocate of stricter immigration policies, invited reporters Saturday to tour the facility, and accused immigration advocates and politicians of fueling the conflict.
Attorneys and advocates for the detainees say the detainees were assaulted and pepper-sprayed by corrections officers after they refused testing — but not out of a desire to avoid it. The detainees allege that deputies sought to forcibly remove them from their unit and take them to the facility’s medical center or the solitary confinement unit, which they say is unsafe and unsanitary.
Ellen Messali, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance Association, which represents several facility detainees, says Hodgson is trying to discredit the federal class action lawsuit. Hodgson’s version “portrays the detainees as dangerous people who should not be released, instead of the truth that many of these people are simply fearful of their health," she said.
Hodgson was holding the detainees for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Attorneys filed a class action lawsuit last month after several ICE detainees in Bristol County custody complained of overcrowding and the inability to practice social distancing at the facility.
The incident began around 7 p.m, when facility medical staffers approached 10 detainees to transport them out of the unit for coronavirus testing, officials said. When they refused to leave, Hodgson arrived to deliver the message directly.
Attorneys for clients in the unit said Hodgson physically confronted a detainee who was attempting to make a phone call. Hodgson allegedly tried to grab the phone out of the man’s hands.
Attorney Ira Alkalay, who spoke to two detainees about the incident, said Hodgson told the man, “you’re going to regret this," then hit him with pepper spray. Several others were also sprayed, as around 30 to 40 guards rushed into the unit deploying tear gas and violently subduing detainees, Alkalay said.
Jonathan Darling, a spokesman for Hodgson’s office, confirmed that the sheriff grabbed the phone out of a detainee’s hand, but said the detainee allegedly hit Hodgson with a plastic chair. That’s when chaos broke out, Darling said.
The sheriff and his employees retreated from the area for about an hour and a half, Darling said, while detainees damaged the facility. When correctional officers returned, Darling confirmed that they shot projectile pepper spray into the unit.
No staff members were injured, but three detainees were taken to a hospital, according to the statement. The nature and extent of their injuries remains unclear.
Darling said the department is reviewing surveillance video as part of its investigation into the incident and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has opened its own inquiry.
Members of Massachusetts’s congressional delegation issued a letter Sunday calling for an independent investigation. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley weighed in Monday night, saying the incident “makes clear the disregard officials at the jail have for the basic humanity of the individuals in their custody.
“We need an independent investigation into this incident, including the public release of all security camera footage, to understand exactly what happened and hold those responsible accountable,” she said in a released statement.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Boston-based organization Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the group had been trying to schedule Hodgson’s deposition when the melee happened.
That deposition, Espinoza-Madrigal said, will now include questions about both what the facility has been doing about the pandemic, as well as Friday’s events.
“Frankly, we suspect that the incident that took place at Bristol County on Friday represents retaliation against our clients for participating in the coronavirus class action, and for asserting their legal rights to be freed from unconstitutional detention conditions,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
As of April 24, 47 detainees at the facility have been released by a judge over coronavirus-related concerns.
Vernal Coleman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @vernalcoleman. Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.