The Bristol County Sheriff and advocates for immigrant detainees at the House of Correction in Dartmouth are blaming each other for violence that erupted there Friday evening.
Dogs and pepper spray were used against the detainees, the sheriff's office confirmed. Three men were taken to the hospital.
Lawyers and advocates for the detainees are calling for a swift, independent investigation into what happened.
Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said the melee erupted after 10 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees exhibiting coronavirus symptoms refused to go to the jail’s medical wing to get tested.
But advocates for the men say they didn’t want to be tested anywhere outside of the unit, because they worried about becoming exposed to the virus during the transport to the medical facility. They were concerned that the transport was an excuse to move them into solitary confinement.
All of the detainees involved are members of a class action lawsuit alleging overcrowding and inhumane conditions at the Bristol County jail amid the pandemic.
Hodgson said he went to the jail’s Unit B on Friday to personally tell the men that they must go get tested.
“You don’t have a choice," Hodgson said he told the detainees. "Either you’re going voluntarily, which I hope you will do, or we’ll have to take you down there."
Hodgson said when he tried to get a detainee to hang up the phone, one prisoner hit him with a chair, and the sheriff and staff moved out of the room.
“You don’t have a choice. Either you’re going voluntarily, which I hope you will do, or we’ll have to take you down there."Sheriff Thomas Hodgson
Then, Hodgson said, the detainees took tables and dryers out of the laundry room to barricade the door, pulled a rail from a handicapped bathroom and smashed belongings in the prayer room. He said the officers' work station, computer and a television were destroyed.
"Basically trashed the entire unit to the point where it's not inhabitable," Hodgson said. A sheriff's spokesman said the prisoners caused more than $25,00 worth of damage.
Advocates and lawyers for the detainees said it was the prisoners who were attacked by corrections staff — and the sheriff himself.
Attorney Ira Alkalay was the person on the other line when Hodgson approached a detainee on the phone. Alkalay said he heard his client cry out in pain and the phone dropped, but the line remained open.
Later, Alkalay was able to get his client back on the phone. The man said he was terrified.
“He said that the sheriff had rushed at him and grabbed the phone out of his hands and shoved him,” Alkalay recounted. The sheriff, the detainee said, “had the devil in his eyes.”
The legal group representing those in the class action lawsuit, Lawyers For Civil Rights, said the men worried that moving to the medical wing of the jail would expose them to infection. They wanted to be tested, but while remaining in the unit.
“The sheriff’s office attempted to forcibly move an individual and the conflict escalated, including the arrival of more officers, the deployment of guards in riot gear, and the use of dogs and either tear gas or pepper spray,” the Lawyers Committee statement said.
He said the sheriff "had the devil in his eyes"Attorney Ira Alkalay
The men also worried that the move to the medical wing would end with them in solitary confinement. Vanesa Suárez, a community organizer with the Connecticut Bail Fund, was on the phone with a friend in the unit Friday evening. Corrections officers told Suárez's friend and the other detainees to pack their things, and that they were heading to the medical wing for testing, she recalled him telling her.
“They wanted the COVID testing to happen within their unit where they all felt more comfortable, less exposed, and where not nobody would then be subject to confinement,” Suárez said.
Just before 6 p.m. she got a frantic call from her friend. She said he told her they were being sprayed with something — pepper spray or gas — and that the detainees couldn’t breathe. He told her Hodgson himself was participating in the assaults.
“We’re all being beaten. They’re going to turn this into a riot,” she said he told her. “They’re beating us. Please call the lawyers. Call the media. Call everyone. Get us help.”
Hodgson told WBUR that the entire brawl was captured on tape, but a spokesman said the sheriff’s office would not provide the footage until any investigation was complete and "if it does not compromise the safety and security of the institution."
Lawmakers and advocates for the prisoners are calling for an outside investigation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts said there needs to be an independent inquiry.
“Matters like these require transparency in order to ensure trust in government during a pandemic,” ACLU Executive Director Carol Rose said in a statement. “That is particularly true where the leader of that institution has been accused of personal misconduct during the incident.”
Rose called on Gov. Charlie Baker to use his executive powers to “establish safe, humane, and transparent protocols to make universal testing available for all jails, prisons, and ICE detention facilities throughout the state.”
Rep. Joe Kennedy, whose district includes Bristol County, called for an immediate and independent investigation into the incident. He also demanded surveillance footage be released and every detainee present be given immediate access to counsel.
Kennedy told WBUR an investigation should center on the level of violence that was allegedly used against inmates.
"If there was in fact an effort to provide additional treatment and to safeguard the health of these individuals, [there are questions about] why a violent response was necessary," he said.
A sheriff's spokesman said 15 people at the Bristol County jail have been tested — a combination of regular prisoners and ICE detainees. All tests have been negative.
“We have no COVID-19 cases," Hodgson said. "So this panic button everybody has been pushing for seven weeks is outrageous.”
ICE is not reporting the number of detainees it is testing, but is updating its website with positive results. As of Saturday, ICE has not reported any positive tests among detainees held at the three Massachusetts county jails the agency contracts with.
In a statement, Todd Lyons, the acting field office director for enforcement and removal operations for ICE, thanked the sheriff's office for their action.
“We commend the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office staff who responded rapidly and professionally to de-escalate a volatile situation, limiting injuries and further damage to the facility and restoring order," he said.
WBUR's Shannon Dooling and Mark Degon contributed to this report.