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Hunger strikes by Bristol County detainees spark Friday night rally

A prisoners advocacy group held a rally Friday night in support of more than 250 Bristol County House of Correction inmates who launched a hunger strike this week to support 60 ICE detainees who have been protesting conditions at the jail, including what they said were limited access to health care and poor food quality.

One of the organizers from the advocacy group, Bristol County for Correctional Justice, said the demonstrators rallied in the parking lot of the UMass Dartmouth Law School with the goal of raising awareness of conditions at the jail.

“None of the sheriffs are held accountable and we want to see accountability,” said organizer Marlene Pollock.

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Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson accused the advocates organizing the rally of promoting “misinformation to advance their socialist agenda.”

“Sadly, these activists continue to promote misinformation to advance their socialist agenda,” Hodgson said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Rather than ask the questions and learn the truth, they choose to push propaganda. By creating a platform based on false information about inmate treatment, they place my officers and all the inmates in danger.”

Bristol County public information officer Jonathan Darling said the strike had ended Thursday afternoon, but prison advocates said several ICE detainees were still on strike at that time.

“Some of our staff met with some of the ringleaders of the protest and heard their concerns,” Darling wrote in an e-mail Thursday afternoon. “The chief concern was the food variety in terms of having similar foods on consecutive meals, and we agreed to look into re-arranging the menu to giving more time between similar meals.”

Violeta Munera director of human rights organization Families for Freedom, said at least eight ICE detainees continued to strike Thursday. She said four detainees had been placed in solitary confinement and two had been transferred to South Bay House of Correction.

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Munera said on Friday she had been unable to contact anyone at the jail to see if detainees were still striking.

The protests began more than a week ago when about 60 ICE detainees refused to eat their prepared lunches on July 18, Darling said in a phone interview on Thursday. Another 60 ICE detainees then followed suit by refusing to eat breakfast or lunch the next day.

Darling said many detainees chose to eat foods they had purchased from the commissary such as ramen noodles, Pop-Tarts, and candy instead of meals prepared at the prison.

The detainees’ demands included increased access to medical care, nutritional food, and lower commissary and phone rates, according to a statement from Families for Freedom.

“Guys are getting sick because the shower has mold and the food is 3 to 4 days old and yellow, like yellow mashed potatoes,” the statement quoted an inmate as saying. “If you are sick you have to wait 1 to 2 weeks before you get attention. There’s a guy in here who has gone three weeks with a broken hand and no medical care. People are getting seizures and no medical care, people are denied medicine for their conditions. People get food poisoning from the food and are told to just drink water.”

Darling said the mashed potatoes are yellow because they include beef stock and spices that turn them that color.

“We don’t serve rotten food,” he said.

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Concerns such as the ones expressed by the detainees are not uncommon in correction settings, he said.

“We’re going to check out some menu changes,” he said. “The ICE detainees, they get the same meals as the county inmates, so I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to change the menu or anything like that, but we’ll check it out.”

The inmates’ strike in solidarity with the ICE detainees began Tuesday evening, when 71 inmates refused to eat their dinner, Darling said. Wednesday morning, 35 more inmates joined them, refusing breakfast, and then all of them refused lunch. That night 136 inmates joined in, refusing dinner.

Thursday morning, 258 inmates declined to eat breakfast.

Hodgson has been embroiled in other controversies.

Bristol County accounted for about a quarter of all jail suicides in Massachusetts from 2006 to 2016, even though it holds 13 percent of the statewide jail population, according to an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, published in the Globe in May 2017.

The county is also facing two lawsuits filed in the past six months.

Three inmates with mental health problems filed a lawsuit against Hodgson and other officials at Bristol County Jail in January for allegedly placing them in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day with little treatment for their conditions.

The second lawsuit, filed in May, alleges that the sheriff office’s contract with its phone company implied an illegal kickback scheme that is responsible for nearly doubling the cost of calls made from county jails.

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In January 2017, the sheriff stirred up constroversy when he offered up Bristol County inmates as a potential work force to President Trump to build a border wall with Mexico.


Sophia Eppolito can be reached at sophia.eppolito@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.