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Unrest at Bristol County jail over suicide prevention moves

Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in Dartmouth. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in Dartmouth. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Close to 200 correctional officers responded to a disturbance at the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction Friday, after an hours-long standoff between prisoners and jail officials.

Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux said teams of officers from the Department of Correction as well as jails in Hampden, Plymouth, Norfolk, Barnstable and Suffolk counties helped control the disturbance in two housing units.

The standoff began around 9 a.m., when Heroux was launching a plan to replace metal beds and other items used in suicides at the jail. In response, some prisoners did not want to move from their housing units and issued a list of demands. Heroux said he responded in writing to the demands, but the prisoners ripped up his response.

"Things just went sideways," Heroux said at a press briefing Friday evening. "The trigger was moving inmates who didn’t want to be moved. We explained that we were doing this to prevent suicides. They got it in their minds that they didn’t want to move to different housing units."

Heroux, who was elected sheriff last year and took office in January, said no officers or prisoners were hurt in the fracas. But in the first housing unit, which housed about 75 men, he said inmates destroyed furniture, started fires, smashed cameras, blocked exits with mattresses and dumped water and soap on the floors to make it difficult for officers to walk.

Heroux estimated the damage at between $100,000 and $200,000. He said the 17 men who led the protest have been moved to other correctional facilities and will likely face criminal charges.

In the second housing unit, with about 63 men, Heroux said the damage was milder, but a console that controlled doors of the jail was destroyed. Both housing units are now empty and the prisoners have been moved to other facilities. The men in both units were being held pretrial, which means they have been charged but not convicted.

Heroux said the housing units do not have locked doors because the cells do not have toilets; his plans for the facility include installing toilets in cells so doors can be locked.

The union representing correction officers said the "large-scale disturbance" caused guards to "vacate the units to safety." The union said teams from the county and state were called and spent Friday afternoon regaining control of the jail.

In a statement, Kevin Flanagan of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said, “This amongst so many other incidents over the past several years continues to demonstrate that Correctional Officers have the most dangerous, threatening and stressful jobs in state service."

The Dartmouth Fire Department also responded to the incident Friday.

Because the suicide rate in Bristol County correctional facilities is three times higher than the national average, jail officials had hired a consultant to look into the details around those deaths. Among the consultant's recommendations was to change some housing to reduce the risk of suicide. Consultant Lindsay Hayes wrote that some of the beds and ventilation grates posed risks.

The report said all of the seven suicides at the jail " between 2017 and January 2023 involved inmates using the metal rails of bunk beds, or ventilation holes, as "an anchoring point in their suicides by hanging."

The Bristol County House of Correction is an 1,100-bed facility that recently held fewer than 700 prisoners. Most of the people in custody there are serving short sentences, although the jail also holds some higher-security pretrial detainees.

Editor's note: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.


Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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