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AG Report: Bristol County Sheriff Violated Civil Rights Of Immigrant Detainees; Calls For Transfer Of Those In Custody

The immigration detention center at the Bristol County Sheriff's Office in Dartmouth, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The immigration detention center at the Bristol County Sheriff's Office in Dartmouth, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A new report issued Tuesday by Attorney General Maura Healey's office finds Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson violated the civil rights of federal immigration detainees during a violent altercation in May.

After a months-long investigation, the attorney general determined Hodgson and his staff used excessive force in their response to a disturbance among some immigration detainees, employing a variety of weapons, including a flash bang grenade, pepper spray and pepper-balls, anti-riot shields and canines.

“Our investigation revealed that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office violated the rights of detainees by using excessive force and by seriously risking their health and safety,” Healey said. “This callous disregard for the well-being of immigration detainees is unacceptable and must be addressed through the significant reforms we outline in our report."

As a result of the findings, Healey recommended the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) terminate its contracts with the Bristol County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) "as expeditiously as possible." In order to ensure the safety and well-being of immigrant detainees, the attorney general also asked for the immediate transfer of current federal immigration detainees to other facilities.

In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon, the BCSO called the attorney general’s report a politically-motivated stunt, saying it was “littered with baseless allegations and assumptions.”

The sheriff’s office commended the staff involved in the altercation, saying they stand by the response to the incident and look forward to the results of the “truly independent investigation currently being worked on by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.”

A Phone Call, Pepper Spray And Escalation

On the evening of May 1, WBUR was contacted by multiple sources who had heard from people inside the facility about a dispute taking place among ICE detainees in Unit B and BCSO staff, including Sheriff Hodgson.

According to the AG's report, a number of detainees were screened for symptoms related to COVID-19. Ten individuals were then told in English — a language many of them did not fully understand — that they'd need to leave their detention unit to be tested for the virus, and ultimately, be isolated from the general population if the results were positive. The detainees refused to go to the medical wing, fearing exposure to the illness if they were to leave their unit. The situation escalated, according to the report, when Hodgson arrived on scene and told the detainees they'd be removed forcefully if necessary.

Immigrants in detention at BCSO are federal civil detainees, not criminal prisoners. While some may have pending criminal charges or previous convictions, in many cases the individuals are held while awaiting their immigration court proceedings or pending deportation.

One of the detainees, identified in the report as M.B., attempted to call his attorney and, while on the phone, was approached by the sheriff and a corrections officer. Witness accounts of this interaction from both detainees and BCSO staff vary, but according to M.B., Hodgson grabbed the phone and pushed M.B. against the phone kiosk. Hodgson denied this account, the report said, saying he merely attempted to terminate the phone call.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The ensuing chaos was described in the report by both immigration detainees and BCSO staff as "scary."

As several detainees rushed to aid M.B., the report said the first rounds of pepper spray were issued, hitting some detainees in the eyes, face and mouth. So much pepper spray was used, according to the report, that many of the detainees believed a noxious gas was being pumped into the unit through the ventilation system.

BCSO staff, including the sheriff, were able to safely exit the detention facility while behavior among the detainees in Unit B escalated, with a number of them throwing plastic chairs. According to the report, the destructive behavior continued for a few minutes. Several detainees were seen on video footage destroying sinks and appliances, breaking mirrors and smashing through walls, the report said. They also attempted to barricade the doors with mattresses, tables and other furniture.

An hour later, most of the detainees were seen on video walking around the unit or sitting and laying in beds, the report said. Many of the detainees were wearing towels over their faces to alleviate the symptoms of pepper spray exposure, they told the AG's office. But BCSO staff believed the towels were a way to conceal their identify, signifying that detainees were readying for a confrontation.

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That's when the Sheriff's Response Team (SRT) and the K9 unit, including both muzzled and unmuzzled dogs, began organizing outside the detention unit, planning for re-entry.

'I'm Really Afraid For My Life Right Now'

According to the report, the ventilation system to the detention unit was shut off following the interaction at the phone kiosk, guaranteeing that whatever pepper spray was deployed during the next use of force would be trapped in the unit. The BCSO also eventually shut down the water system in the unit, meaning detainees couldn't dampen towels as a means of protecting against pepper spray.

The report stated that recordings of non-confidential phone calls made by detainees during this time offer insight into the unit's collective emotional state as detainees watched BCSO organize outside their unit.

According to the AG's report, one detainee told his wife, “I’m really afraid for my life right now.” A detainee with COPD, a degenerative lung disease, and other serious medical conditions phoned an advocate to explain that he could not breathe and needed medical help. And another detainee told his wife on the phone that the sheriff was acting “crazy,” that he was scared and that she would need to take care of their kids if something happened to him.

At no time during this period did BCSO staff or leadership attempt to de-escalate the situation, the AG's report found. The staff also failed to consider underlying medical conditions, the report asserted, that could place certain detainees at heightened risk during a calculated use of force.

The report said that at approximately 7:15 p.m., an hour after the initial altercation ended, 16 SRT officers entered the detention unit, throwing a flash bang grenade while yelling in English for the detainees to get on the ground. At least 30 rounds of pepper-ball were fired at detainees, many of whom were not resisting, according to the report.

Detainees were removed from the detention unit one by one, restrained by the hands and in some cases, legs, and brought outside to a recreation area, according to the report. Unmuzzled dogs remained in close proximity to the restrained detainees.

According to the report, an ICE detainee identified as G.L. appeared to lose consciousness while outside, falling onto his back, where he remained for approximately two minutes before being administered chest compressions by a corrections officer. G.L. was later evaluated by a nurse before being placed into a solitary cell. Two detainees exhibiting respiratory distress and one suffering from a shoulder injury were transported to a hospital.

The report also noted Hodgson recorded video of much of the activity in the recreation pen on his personal cell phone. "We noted two incidents in
particular where officers brought detainees to their knees directly in front of
Sheriff Hodgson before loading them in the transport van," the report states.

Hodgson refused to provide the AG's office with video footage from his cell phone.

Tensions Were Brewing For Months

Weeks after the violent altercation, WBUR reported that advocates were concerned about the treatment of immigration detainees held in custody at BCSO. Prisoners' rights advocates said detainees were kept in isolation for four weeks, with limited access to legal counsel and no written notice explaining their rights to an appeal.

According to the AG's investigation, the BCSO placed all 25 detainees from Unit B in administrative segregation "regardless of the degree or extent of the detainees’ participation in the disturbance." Immigration detainees also reported unsanitary conditions in the solitary cells.

Tensions among immigration detainees in Unit B and BCSO staff had been brewing for months before the May 1 altercation. In March, Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a class action suit in Boston federal court, claiming immigrants held there were unable to socially distance and were being kept in unsanitary conditions. U.S. District Court Judge William Young in April ordered ICE detainees to be released from BCSO on a rolling basis.

Six days after the violent disturbance in Unit B, Young found both Hodgson and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had deliberately disregarded the health of detainees in their care amid the pandemic. Young ordered immediate, widespread COVID testing of detainees at ICE's expense, as well as staff who may have come in contact with them.

A Failure At Multiple Levels; Calls For Reform

The AG's report found the BCSO violated the civil rights of the immigration detainees in two distinct ways: "by applying constitutionally excessive force to the ICE B detainees and by acting with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to the detainees’ health and safety."

The investigation also found the sheriff and his staff violated their own internal policies and protocols around de-escalation and the use of canine units. In light of these findings, Healey recommended the BCSO adopt new procedures to avoid conflicts, develop training on cultural sensitivity and conduct an external audit of all institutional policies and procedures related to the use of force.

Additionally, the AGO called on the Massachusetts General Court to enact legislation to prevent the BCSO from housing immigration detainees or participating in federal immigration enforcement in any respect, including 287(g) agreements, which deputize BCSO staff to perform some federal immigration duties.

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) applauded the AG's report, saying the findings track closely to Young's federal court ruling.

"Sheriff Hodgson has repeatedly been found, by both federal and state officials, to violate the rights of those in his care," LCR said in the statement. He should step down before more people are harmed."

Shortly after the Unit B incident, WBUR filed a public records request with the BCSO asking for details related to the day's events. The sheriff's office denied the request, citing ongoing investigations as an exemption.

The ACLU of Massachusetts is currently suing the BCSO for access to similar records. In a statement Tuesday, Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, called on Hodgson to release documentation to the public.

“This extreme violence was unacceptable even under ICE’s and the BCSO’s own rules and standards. Sheriff Hodgson and his team then tried to cover it up by withholding all public records related to the incident. Sheriffs are elected by the people to preserve public safety and uphold the law—not to violate people’s rights and conceal misconduct," the statement read in part.

This article was originally published on December 15, 2020.

Shannon Dooling Twitter Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling is an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.

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