Metro

Yvonne Abraham

For Bristol County sheriff, a badge of dishonor

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson.
Handout
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson.

And now, watch me play right into the paws of a rabid publicity-hound.

It used to be that an elected official who said something offensive or monumentally stupid would pay a price for it — unflattering coverage, rejection by voters, that kind of thing.

But as the last year has taught us, those days are gone.

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Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is a man for our times. He loves, loves, loves the limelight. He found it yet again on Wednesday night, using his elaborate swearing-in ceremony to float the cockamamie notion of sending the unfortunate inmates he oversees to the Mexican border, where they’d provide free labor building the president-elect’s vaunted wall. Hodgson has named the offensive idea “Project NICE.” The NICE stands for something, but really, the acronym is just a troll.

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Many, including some of my colleagues, have blasted Hodgson for this, but I doubt he’ll mind. His dream of becoming America’s loopiest sheriff — the new Joe Arpaio — is closer than ever. This latest gambit has garnered the amiable Republican major national attention.

The sheriff has made a reputation running his lock-ups as if the last century didn’t happen. Chain gangs? Inhuman overcrowding? Scrimping on food? Charging inmates for their own incarceration? Bring ’em on! Who cares about the law, let alone basic rights?

“He has no problem violating the law if he thinks that one of his proposals will get him a headline,” says James Pingeon, litigation director at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. The group has brought two successful class-action lawsuits against Hodgson. The sheriff, who styles himself a fiscal conservative, has run up legal fees and costs of at least $5 million fighting and settling disputes everybody knew he couldn’t win.

“We don’t have many cases that are that easy,” said Leslie Walker, who heads Prisoners Legal Services, referring to Hodgson’s attempt to levy a $5-a-day fee on inmates, struck down by the courts. “It was kindergarten stuff. You have no statutory authority to do this, [but] you fight to the highest court in the state? It was nothing but a waste.”

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It depends on how you define waste. All of that taxpayer money bought Hodgson a seriously high profile. He even talked on Wednesday of reintroducing the daily fee. Ka-ching!

So why give him yet more of the attention he craves? Because Hodgson isn’t just some bureaucratic gadfly: He has held the lives of tens of thousands of people, many of them poor and vulnerable, in his hands.

A sheriff has the capacity to cause real pain far beyond the walls of his lock-up if he chooses. He can also change thousands of lives for the better. It matters that Hodgson sees his inmates — especially those from other countries — as less than human.

Letting his cruelty go unremarked will make his cruelty unremarkable. Ignoring him won’t stop his inhumane practices. Calling him out might, though I concede I am less confident of that than I once was.

The voters just reelected Hodgson, who ran unopposed, for another six years. Some of the 188,000 who gave him the nod are clearly unperturbed by his make-’em-break-rocks approach. Or by some of the other iffy things he has done as sheriff: making hires that seemed designed to pad appointees’ state pensions, or using $2 million in public money not to house inmates, but to set up a “homeland security task force” that included hefty consulting fees for a campaign donor.

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The depressing truth is, some of Hodgson’s supporters clearly love his tough talk, now more than ever. But mostly, he benefits from the fact that voters don’t pay enough attention to down-ballot races to make informed choices. Name recognition is all.

The sheriff was ahead of his time. Now more than ever, scapegoating immigrants, erasing progress, and embracing cruelty are proven electoral strategies. Shamelessness will win the day — unless more of us start paying attention.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.