FALL RIVER — Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson has made a personal offer to President-elect Donald Trump: Bristol County inmates will be available to help build Trump’s border wall with Mexico.
“I can think of no other project that would have such a positive impact on our inmates and our country than building this wall,” Hodgson, a Republican, said in remarks at his inaugural ceremony Wednesday night at Bristol Community College.
He did not address who would pay to transport, house, and secure local inmates while they labor on the wall project. Trump, however, has said Mexico will pay for the wall.
“Aside from learning and perfecting construction skills, the symbolism of these inmates building a wall to prevent crime in communities around the country, and to preserve jobs and work opportunities for them and other Americans upon release, can be very powerful,” Hodgson said.
Hodgson announced his offer to Trump moments after Governor Charlie Baker delivered the oath of office to him for his fourth six-year term as sheriff.
Baker did not speak to reporters at the event, but a spokesman issued a statement afterward signaling reluctance to embrace the border wall idea.
“The Baker-Polito administration is thankful for the valuable community service inmates in Bristol County have provided through work programs and would prefer they continue to offer those services closer to home,” spokesman Billy Pitman said. “The administration has not been briefed on the sheriff’s proposal.”
Hodgson’s offer drew swift condemnation from civil rights advocates, as well as a pithy response from US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who represents parts of Bristol County.
“Congressman Kennedy isn’t sure why the president-elect would need forced labor to build his wall,” Kennedy’s spokeswoman, Emily Kaufman, said in an e-mail. “Isn’t Mexico paying for it?”
Laura Rótolo, staff counsel with the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the proposal might not even be legal.
“The proposal is perverse,” Rótolo said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s inhumane, and it’s most likely unconstitutional. It’s also likely an attempt by Sheriff Hodgson just to ride this wave and become famous nationally. . . . I hope we don’t have to take this proposal seriously.”
Rótolo added that the ACLU could go to court to stop Hodgson if he takes any concrete steps to send inmates to the Mexican border.
“If Sheriff Hodgson follows through on this gimmick, the ACLU of Massachusetts is prepared to use every tool in our toolbox, including litigation, to stop him,” she said. “The wall itself . . . is based on racism and hatred, and no self-respecting Massachusetts official should have anything to do with it.”
Hodgson said he was making his offer through a program called Project NICE, or National Inmates’ Community Endeavors, which he said can help rehabilitate inmates and improve “communities across the country.”
Closer to home, Bristol County inmates have worked in the jurisdiction for years on tasks including graffiti removal in cities and towns, and in groups called Tandem Work Crews, according to the sheriff’s department website.
The website says the Inmate Community Work Program saves the county at least $1.3 million annually.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Maura Healey gave Hodgson’s wall offer low marks.
“This proposal has no basis in law or, frankly, common sense,” said Healey, a Democrat, in a statement. “Our sheriffs have led the nation in developing innovative models for successful rehabilitation and reentry. I hope this political stunt is quickly dismissed and forgotten.”
During a press conference after his inauguration, Hodgson said he has made the offer to the Trump transition organization but has not heard whether Trump will take him up on it.
The Trump transition team did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Hodgson said during the briefing that he imagines the program would ultimately include sheriffs and inmates from around the country. “I’ve talked to a lot of sheriffs.”
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian, a Democrat, offered pointed criticism, saying in a statement that Hodgson’s proposal “misses the mark.”
“This is not something we would consider at the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “With an average length of stay lasting less than a year, we have a brief window of opportunity to address the factors . . . that lead to a person’s incarceration. I would rather use the scarce resources and time we have to offer evidence based programming that has been proven to help inmates prepare for reentry.”
Hodgson said he is a big believer in Trump’s planned wall and has visited the border multiple times. Immigration reform will not work, he said, until the wall is built.
“Start with the basics,” he said. “Build the wall.” He also recommended bringing in Israelis to help design a border control program because they have developed expertise protecting their own borders.
Hodgson suggested inmate labor could dramatically cut the cost of the wall, though he did not know how the wall would be financed. He said he does not anticipate Massachusetts taxpayers would have to pay to send the inmates to the border — those costs would be “something worked on with the federal government.”
Rótolo, however, panned the proposal as a form of slavery.
“The idea of using modern-day slave labor to send people thousands of miles away from their Massachusetts home to build a wall to keep out other vulnerable populations — it’s just preposterous.”
Hodgson is no stranger to controversy.
In 1999, he started a voluntary unpaid chain gang work unit and received a fax from China condemning it as a human rights violation. Three years later, he began charging inmates $5 for each night they spent behind bars to help offset costs.
The state’s highest court struck down the policy in 2010, but Hodgson said during his speech Wednesday that his staff will “explore returning to that original program to help save taxpayers money” and promote inmate accountability.
Hodgson also said during his remarks Wednesday, which he delivered to several hundred supporters, that his office is entering an agreement with federal immigration authorities that will grant immigration enforcement powers to the sheriff’s staff, “which will be specially trained by ICE on all immigration matters, from questioning to deportation.”
The sheriff described the agreement as “a way that we will continue to work with all law enforcement agencies . . . to keep the legal citizens of Bristol County safe.”Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.