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Senate investigation finds Bristol sheriff’s office broke law in denying state senator access to jail

Bristol Sheriff Thomas Hodgson responded to allegations in the attorney general's report at a news conference Tuesday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson’s office broke a Massachusetts law when it refused in May to allow a state senator inside its North Dartmouth jail, one day after staff violently subdued immigration detainees in a confrontation over COVID-19 testing, according to a state Senate investigation released Friday.

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, had a legal right as a legislator to enter the Bristol County House of Correction and its staff had no justification for turning her away, according to the investigation by the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight.

“The Committee’s findings underscore the importance of unannounced visits as a crucial tool necessary for the oversight of correctional facilities,” said Senator John F. Keenan, chairman of the committee, and Senate president Karen E. Spilka, both Democrats, in a statement.

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“The Committee urges appropriate action be taken by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office to ensure compliance and prevent any violations in the future,” they added.

Hodgson’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

On Tuesday, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office released the results of a separate investigation that found Bristol County corrections officials illegally unleashed dogs on detainees, used excessive force, and violated the civil rights of 25 federal immigration detainees in the May 1 confrontation that preceded Chang-Díaz’s visit.

The report said Hodgson escalated the conflict when he began struggling with a detainee.

In a statement Tuesday, Hodgson said Healey’s investigation was “littered with baseless allegations and assumptions.”

Through a spokesman, Hodgson declined to comment on the Senate investigation, saying that since the report had been released Friday afternoon, he would read it over the weekend before speaking.

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Two Republican state senators said in a letter accompanying the report that Chang-Díaz should have been allowed inside the jail but also questioned her motives, saying “a reasonable person can find blame all around.”

Senators Ryan C. Fattman and Dean A. Tran suggested that Chang-Díazs attempt to visit the jail amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic was ill-timed and said they “believe that judgment regarding the current global health crisis should have prevented this situation from the start.”

“Perhaps this visit was essential, perhaps it was not,” they wrote. “Perhaps there were political considerations all around.”

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which represents the detainees, said the Senate’s report was “highly concerning, but not surprising.”

“Sheriff Hodgson has repeatedly been found, by federal and state officials, to violate the rights of people in his care,” said Espinoza-Madrigal in an e-mail. “Sheriff Hodgson has consistently demonstrated his disregard for the law [and] actively blocked access to the facility not only to state officials, but also to attorneys representing immigration detainees.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.