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Judge orders Bristol sheriff to administer coronavirus tests to all federal detainees, staff

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

A federal judge on Thursday ordered Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson to initiate coronavirus tests for all federal detainees and staff within his jail, a ruling that comes just days after a dispute over testing erupted in a melee between detainees and deputies.

US District Court Judge William Young issued the order in an ongoing class action suit filed on behalf of immigrant detainees who allege overcrowding and concerns related to the spread of COVID-19 within the facility.

Citing the likelihood that the suit would succeed, Young demanded 82 detainees undergo testing along with facility nurses and correctional officers, according to attorney Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, director of Lawyer for Civil Rights, the group that initiated the suit. The judge’s preliminary injunction also bars federal authorities from admitting new detainees to the facility.

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Espinoza-Madrigal said the judge’s decision “will go a long way in validating the concerns that our clients have brought to the court since day one.”

In a released statement, Hodgson took aim at Young’s decision, calling it a “meandering opinion in which the judge also expressed his personal dislike of immigration policies.”

"This ruling flies in the face of the CDC guidelines which states that no person, staff member or inmate, who does not exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, should be tested,” Hodgson said.

Hodgson said Young overlooked the fact that jail employees undergo health screenings before starting work each day. Hodgson also said that staff sanitize the facility three times each day and “scrupulously” enforce social distancing guidelines.

The sheriff, an advocate of strict immigration laws, said his attorneys will appeal Young’s decision and seek an emergency stay from the US Department of Justice.

The judge had previously ordered that detainees could be released on bail or house arrest to help free up space at the facility. Around 50 detainees have been released so far.

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The court decision follows a high-profile altercation Friday night between deputies and 10 men Hodgson held in custody on behalf of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Attorneys for the detainees said the men were assaulted and pepper-sprayed by corrections officers after they refused testing and deputies tried to forcibly take them to the facility’s medical center or the solitary confinement unit, which the detainees felt was unsafe and unsanitary.

One detainee detailed the fracas in a phone call moments after the altercation, according to a recording obtained by the Globe.

“They forced us to take the test for the coronavirus,” the detainee said in Spanish. “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.”

Hodgson has said the incident inside the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center occurred when the men 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.

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

Several members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation issued a letter calling for an independent investigation into the incident. Attorney General Maura Healey and state lawmakers have also opened investigations into the incident.

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