Bristol Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson’s office illegally unleashed dogs on detainees, used excessive force, and violated the civil rights of 25 federal immigration detainees involved in a jailhouse melee in May, according to an investigation released Tuesday by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
Healey said Hodgson’s office showed “callous disregard” for the detainees’ well-being. Her report does not recommend any criminal charges, but proposes the sheriff be barred altogether from housing federal detainees and participating in federal immigration enforcement.
“Our investigation revealed that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office violated the rights of detainees by using excessive force and by seriously risking their health and safety,” Healey said in a statement.
Healey’s investigation centered on a May 1 confrontation between sheriff’s office personnel and detainees being held on civil immigration violations on behalf of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The sheriff’s office runs the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center and is paid by ICE to house immigration detainees.
Hodgson has used its facilities to detain immigrants since 2000, when he entered into an agreement with ICE’s predecessor, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Hodgson, a Republican who has served as sheriff since 1997, is a fervent supporter of federal immigration enforcement and offered inmate labor in 2017 to build a wall on the US border with Mexico, the signature pledge of President Trump’s first presidential campaign.
Hodgson released a statement Tuesday saying the report was “littered with baseless allegations and assumptions” and accused Healey of using the incident to support her “long-documented anti-ICE, pro-illegal immigrant political agenda.”
“Shame on Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey for demonizing the corrections and law enforcement professionals at the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office with her latest politically motivated stunt,” said Hodgson.
His staff acted with absolute professionalism during the incident and the office stands by its response, Hodgson added.
Based on her investigation, Healey is urging action to strip Hodgson’s office of its immigration role. Her report noted that the Department of Homeland Security could sever ties with the agency or state lawmakers could enact legislation to prohibit the sheriff’s office from doing immigration work.
ICE and DHS didn’t respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
Healey’s investigation found 25 immigration detainees were inside the detention center when the confrontation began over COVID-19 testing. Ten detainees who were singled out to be tested at the jail had said they were concerned about potential contamination because a few staffers had tested positive and asked instead to be tested in the immigration facility. Hodgson said no — concerned that they could infect their fellow residents, he said later.
Hodgson struggled with one of the detainees, which set off a larger confrontation. Hodgson and his personnel then left the area after a one correction officer released pepper spray, the report said.
Once the officers cleared the room, some detainees spent about 20 minutes breaking appliances, bathroom mirrors, sinks, and tiles, smashing walls, and barricading the door, the report said.
The detainees were then “calm and nonviolent for an hour,” Healey’s office said, before the sheriff’s office staff confronted them and “executed a calculated use of force” that included a flash-bang grenade, pepper spray and pepper projectiles, anti-riot shields, and dogs. The use of dogs was “unlawful,” the investigation found.
“People were terrified. People were afraid for their lives and thought they were going to be killed at the hands of the sheriff and his deputies,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, which represents the detainees. Sellstrom urged Hodgson to resign.
Hodgson has alleged the detainees started the fight, causing $25,000 in damage and leaving him bruised.
The detainees have said that it was Hodgson himself and his officers who attacked first and that it was jail staff who broke glass and damaged the facilities in order to stage a riot.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said the report shines a light on “punitive and inhumane” aspects of the US immigration detention system.
“We are well aware that this sort of behavior happens with a regularity that is unacceptable,” she said in a statement.
So much pepper spray was used that two of the detainees were hospitalized with symptoms of respiratory distress and a third required emergency chest compressions in order to be revived, Healey’s office said. The detainee who needed chest compressions was not taken to a hospital for an evaluation and was later placed in segregation.
Healey’s investigation found the sheriff’s office violated its own rules by using force without taking steps to deescalate the confrontation or issuing warnings to the detainees, some of whom may have not understood verbal directives because of language barriers. The report recommends the sheriff’s office adopt a slate of reforms and warns she may sue if changes aren’t implemented quickly.
The Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, launched an investigation at the urging of the Massachusetts congressional delegation plus some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The inspector general’s office declined to comment Tuesday.
At the State House, the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee announced an investigation into the melee and the refusal by the sheriff’s office to let state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz enter the detention center after the confrontation. Senator John Keenan, who leads the committee, said it expects to release its findings by the end of the week.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Massachusetts affiliate filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court, alleging the sheriff’s office refused to release records about the confrontation even though Hodgson had discussed it publicly.
“Sheriffs are elected by the people to preserve public safety and uphold the law — not to violate people’s rights and conceal misconduct,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the local branch of the ACLU.
US District Judge William Young has barred the sheriff’s office from admitting any new immigration detainees and ordered coronavirus testing for staff and people being held at the facility on behalf of the federal government. Young issued the order in a class action lawsuit filed in March that sought the release of civil immigration detainees who were at risk of developing COVID-19.
Since the lawsuit was initiated, the number of immigration detainees in Bristol County has dropped from 148 people to 19 people as of Dec. 1, according to court papers. There have been no COVID-19 cases among immigration detainees there for about nine months, Hodgson’s office said in court filings.