The inevitable Trump mini-mes are beginning to surface from the brush of the political landscape. Even Massachusetts is not immune, as demonstrated Wednesday night by Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who volunteered his prison population as labor to build President-elect Trump’s wall.
“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 during the swearing-in ceremony for his fourth six-year term as sheriff. He called it, without irony, Project N.I.C.E, which stands for National Inmates’ Community Endeavors.
His proposal is an early hint of what’s to come: Off-the-wall rhetoric issued under the cover of a president who has cleared a path for imitators. It is the perversion of the power of the highest office in the land: rather than inspiring aspirational sentiments, the president-elect sets an example of insults that others feel emboldened to follow. Aside from being impractical — not to mention, unconstitutional — Hodgson’s proposal is demeaning to the very population he was elected to rehabilitate. It would seem he devised the idea to direct attention to himself and curry favor with Trump. But in using the prison population under his care as a political prop, Hodgson also demeaned himself and his office. Folks like Hodgson are beginning to voice ideas that they never would have had the courage to utter before.
At least one other area sheriff thinks the proposal misses the mark.
“Corrections is about successful reentry, which creates healthier and safer communities while saving taxpayers’ dollars,” says Middlesex County Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian. “We hold people, on average, for less than a year. I consider this a window of opportunity to give them the support necessary to stay strong, healthy, and out of jails. I’m not going to waste a day by sending them outside my facility.” Koutoujian adds that his office offers community work programs to inmates, doing things like repainting elder-care facilities, shoveling out fire hydrants during snow storms, and lanscaping. But, at least in Middlesex County, inmates “earn” their participation with good discipline.
The backlash to Hodgson’s project was fierce, although Governor Charlie Baker did not seem perturbed. “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,” said a spokesman. This is Baker at his milquetoast worst. A much more proper response would be: “What a dumb idea.” Baker should have roundly rejected the absurd and cruel proposal to ship prisoners to build a border wall, which inevitably summons images of slavery. .
Hodgson has been stretching the boundaries of his office for years, infamously bringing back chain gangs in 1999. In 2002, he decided to raise the “rent” on prisoners to $5 per day, which inspired prison protests, until a judge overturned his decision two years later. More recently, Hodgson received authorization for his personnel to receive training to perform immigration law-enforcement duties.
Hodgson must see the Trump presidency as his moment in the sun. As a counterpoint, we need our political leaders to call out cruel and exploitive ideas. The failure to do so only emboldens more Trump mini-mes.