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Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is offering President-elect Donald Trump some help to build his proposed wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
As he begins his fourth term in office, Sheriff Hodgson is proposing a national work program for inmates, and he'd like to begin with work on the wall.
The Sheriff's 'Formal Offer' To Trump
Hodgson's swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday was complete with color guard and bag pipes, setting a formal tone for the evening. Gov. Charlie Baker introduced Hodgson, applauding his long public service record, his loyalty to upholding the law and his transparency.
"I've always admired the fact that no one ever had to doubt where Tom was coming from on any particular issue that he faced here as sheriff," Baker said.
Sheriff Hodgson is known for speaking his mind and not shying away from politically hot topics.
In fact, the longtime Republican has made a name for himself in this blue state by doing just that.
Hodgson is a Trump supporter, backing the president-elect's hard-line approach to immigration enforcement, including the need for a border wall. The sheriff has also criticized public officials in so-called "sanctuary cities" for their refusal to fully cooperate with customs enforcement agents.
So, Hodgson made these issues the focus of a new national proposal: a first-of-its-kind, nationwide inmate labor program that he calls "Project N.I.C.E." — or National Inmates' Community Endeavors.
To kick off the program, Hodgson is offering to send Massachusetts inmates to the country's southern border.
"I'm making a formal offer to President-elect Trump, that inmates from Bristol County and from across the nation, through Project N.I.C.E., will help build that wall," he said.
Hodgson did not provide details on how the program would be funded, and he said he's not heard back from Trump's office yet. But he's confident this is something the president-elect can get behind.
"I believe that we will have a good partnership with the federal authorities," Hodgson said. "We don't have a commitment at this point, but I fully expect we will, 'cause it makes all the sense in the world. It's hard to argue, regardless of what the initiative is, whether it's building a wall or rebuilding a community after a disaster, it's what government ought to be doing."
The Trump team has not responded to inquiries from WBUR about the offer.
Critics Say Inmate Work Programs Don't Belong At The Border
In the meantime, Hodgson does have some national support for the program, which would be voluntary for inmates.
National Sheriffs' Association Director Jonathan Thompson said his group would back the initiative, as long as the federal government does.
"What we believe nationally is that it takes a few successful endeavors like this to really create a template, so to speak, to allow sheriffs across the country to engage in something like this and then to put it into practice," Thompson said. "So, we're very pleased to hear that Sheriff Hodgson has come to the plate, come to say, 'I want to try this.' "
But in an emailed statement, Baker's office expressed less enthusiasm.
Thanking the sheriff for his efforts with inmate work projects in local communities, the administration said it would prefer the Bristol County sheriff to "continue to offer those services closer to home."
And closer to home is where some people believe inmate work programs belong.
Vincent Schiraldi is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a former probation commissioner in New York City. He values local prison work programs, but questions whether such a national program would be worthwhile.
Especially, Schiraldi said, if inmates are being asked to work on politically charged projects like the border wall.
"A lot of good can come from having people who have run afoul of the law repay their debt to society by doing works in the community to sort of make reparation. And it's a real shame to start that with probably the most divisive public works project perhaps in the history of America," he said.
While Schiraldi fears that such a program could backfire — alienating prisoners instead of engaging them — Sheriff Hodgson said he can think of no other project that would have as positive an impact on inmates as helping to construct a wall to secure their country.
This segment aired on January 5, 2017.
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