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‘We are all scared.’ Audio recording sheds light on Bristol County jail melee

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson spoke to the media Saturday at his immigration facility in North Dartmouth.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Moments after the Friday night altercation inside a Bristol County jail, detainees made pleas for help in a series of harried phone calls.

Amid shouts and background noise, they talked of a showdown with sheriff’s deputies over coronavirus tests, followed by blasts of pepper spray and the use of force, according to audio recordings obtained by the Globe.

“They forced us to take the test for the coronavirus,” a detainee said in Spanish during one call. “We didn’t want to do it because we were not feeling anything. . . . They went crazy and the holy truth is that we are all scared and I don’t know if somebody can help us.”

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A second man claimed that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson attacked and pepper-sprayed him. “This is not going to go down well,” he said in one of the recorded phone calls. “This guy is out of control.”

The recordings, shared with the Globe by a person close to the incident, provide a brief glimpse into the recent, high-profile confrontation that has sparked calls from federal lawmakers for an independent investigation and drawn attention to the handling of coronavirus testing inside jails.

Hodgson was holding the 10 men in custody on behalf of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Hodgson has said the incident inside the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center occurred when detainees refused testing, attacked corrections officers, and caused around $25,000 dollars of equipment damage to the facility. His department acknowledged that members of a tactical team rushed into the facility and used pepper spray and canines to subdue the detainees.

Three detainees were taken to a hospital and several others are being held in isolation pending coronavirus testing and possible disciplinary action, according to a department spokesman. No jail staff members were injured.

John Darling, spokesman for Hodgson’s office, confirmed Hodgson grabbed the phone from a detainee Friday night, but denied the sheriff physically attacked the man.

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Darling called the detainees’ account of the incident fiction, part of a “misinformation campaign” designed by advocates and attorneys for the detainees to sway public opinion.

One of those attorneys, Ira Alkalay, declined to comment Wednesday on the recording.

“The narrative that has been put out there that these are terrible people,” he said of the detainees. “But the reality is that these are people who wanted to be tested for a very long time."

Last month, attorneys for several detainees filed a federal class action lawsuit alleging overcrowding and the inability to practice social distancing at the facility.

Over the weekend, members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation issued a letter calling for an independent investigation into the incident. US Representative Ayanna Pressley later said the incident “makes clear the disregard officials at the jail have for the basic humanity of the individuals in their custody."

Attorney General Maura Healey and a state Senate committee have opened investigations into the incident.

Darling said the sheriff’s office is reviewing surveillance video as part of its investigation into the incident and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has opened an inquiry. Darling declined comment on the pending investigations.

The incident began Friday afternoon, when facility medical staffers approached the detainees to transport them out of the unit for coronavirus testing, officials said. Hodgson arrived to deliver the message directly, when the detainees initially declined to leave.

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Hodgson, long an advocate of stricter immigration policies, invited reporters into the facility Saturday to see the damage that occurred during the melee.

Attorneys and those who advocate for reducing jail and prison populations in response to the coronavirus threat have taken the battle to courts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in April ordered state authorities to expedite the release of eligible pretrial detainees, leading to the release of hundreds from state houses of correction.

About 50 detainees at the Bristol County immigration facility have been released by a judge over coronavirus-related concerns, according to the most recent court documents.


Vernal Coleman can be reached at vernal.coleman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @vernalcoleman.