Thomas Hodgson — the Bristol County sheriff who offered to send his prisoners to the Southern border to help build Donald Trump’s infamous wall, attempted to collect a $5 per day inmate fee, and mistreated immigrants held in his detention center during the coronavirus pandemic — has finally had his lucrative immigration enforcement contracts canceled by the US Department of Homeland Security.
The long-overdue corrective measure Thursday serves as a warning to Hodgson, whose fourth six-year term comes to an end next year, when he is up for reelection. The good news is that voters in Bristol County are starting to catch up.
According to a recent survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, Hodgson’s armor is showing some cracks and he could be vulnerable to a potential Democratic challenger. “A plurality (42 percent) of Bristol County voters say that, given the choice between voting to reelect Hodgson and voting for a generic Democratic opponent, they would support his challenger,” reads the summary of the poll, conducted in early February. Just over a third of voters said they would vote for Hodgson.
Hodgson’s fate holds some symbolic importance. He is the closest thing Massachusetts has to an elected Trump surrogate, a man who has visited the Trump White House. The Trump effect may help or may hurt. And justice for the many who have suffered at his hands will have to come at the ballot box.
It was significant that Bristol County’s immigrant detention center was singled out for shutdown along with the Irwin County Detention Center, in Ocilla, Ga., which made national news after advocates and women formerly held there alleged that a doctor performed nonconsensual gynecological procedures on detainees. “The closure of these two facilities simultaneously shows the spectrum of abuse and misconduct across detention centers nationally,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which has challenged Hodgson’s practices in court.
Last month, the federal government and Lawyers for Civil Rights settled a class action lawsuit alleging unsafe conditions and overcrowding at Bristol County’s immigration detention facility during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic, Hodgson’s civil immigrant detainee population was nearly 150; now, as a result of the lawsuit, it’s 7.
During Hodgson’s more than 20 years as sheriff, he has accumulated a litany of malpractices that are not limited to the immigration realm. In 1999 he brought back chain gangs, in which incarcerated people at Bristol County would volunteer to do unpaid work in the community while chained to each other, an image that inevitably brings back images of slavery and forced labor.
Hodgson’s phone rates are notoriously higher than the national median people in jail pay. In Bristol County, incarcerated people and their families pay 3.5 times more than those at a state prison. And since 2011, Hodgson’s office has received roughly $2 million in payments from — you guessed it — the prison telephone vendor he contracts with. The sheriff also tried to ban most in-person family visits; instead, he wanted families to only rely on and pay for video calls. Hodgson’s facilities have also seen a disproportionately high rate of suicides in recent years, which has prompted several wrongful death lawsuits.
Then there are the immigrant detainees held on civil violations. Last year, Hodgson’s guards clashed with immigrant detainees over coronavirus concerns. Attorney General Maura Healey investigated the confrontation and found that the Bristol County sheriff’s office used excessive force and acted with callous disregard for the well-being of detainees. Meanwhile, from 2012 to 2019, Hodgson’s office received nearly $50 million from ICE to house and transport immigrants.
“This is a black eye for Hodgson,” said Rafael Pizarro, a member of Bristol County for Correctional Justice, a group of advocates that’s been tracking and exposing abuses by Hodgson since 2017. “We think that what the sheriff did to the people detained in the ICE facility is just a microcosm of his treatment of the general population he’s supposed to be taking care of.” As of May 12, Bristol County jails in New Bedford and North Dartmouth held a total of about 600 people.
Bristol County deserves better. “The political establishment in the state, even Massachusetts residents as a whole, have normalized the abuse and indignities that Sheriff Hodgson visited upon immigrants, time and time again,” Espinoza-Madrigal told me.
The last time Hodgson was on the ballot, almost five years ago, he ran unopposed. Yet Thursday might have been the day the political career of Hodgson, the state’s longest-serving sheriff, began to end. Whether this corner of the Commonwealth — more conservative than the state as a whole — has run out of patience for his flagrant abuses remains to be seen. But Democrats should start thinking of a candidate, because the odds look good.