Bristol sheriff investigating Friday's jail uprising

Damage from Bristol County Jail prisoner uprising on April 21, 2023 (Courtesy, Bristol County Sheriff's Office)
Damage from Bristol County Jail prisoner uprising on April 21, 2023 (Courtesy, Bristol County Sheriff's Office)

Corrections officers were able to exit a Bristol County Jail unit just before doors were locked on rioting prisoners, staving off what could have been a violent situation, according to the sheriff.

"They were seconds away from being locked in there with the inmates which would have been a hostage situation," Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux said at a press conference Monday. "It was really that close and it's incredible they got out when they did."

Four correction officers, overseeing one of the units that held about 75 men, left around 9 a.m. Friday and locked the prisoners inside. Phone service was shut down and the prisoners began damaging the inside. At one point, television footage showed men spraying a fire extinguisher at officers through a broken window.

Heroux said the prisoners caused between $100,000 and $200,000 in damage. They smashed a control console, used mattresses to block entrances, poured soapy water on the floors to make them slippery and created makeshift weapons out of damaged furniture and equipment.

Special security teams from five other jails and the state Department of Correction were called in to help. Heroux said he did not authorize K-9 units because he was trying to avoid injuries and the "optics are terrible." His main goal was to de-escalate the situation, said Heroux, facing a situation of this kind for the first time since taking office in January.

After a standoff that continued into Friday evening, the prisoners were escorted out of the jail in handcuffs. Twenty men are expected to face criminal charges for their role in the uprising. Those who led the protest have been moved to other jails in the state.

Heroux released photos of the damage Monday and said videos will be released once the investigation is completed. The uprising was driven in part by the lack of locks on the doors of cells that lack toilets. Part of his plan, Heroux said, is to seek state assistance to renovate the unit to include toilets, so cell doors can be locked.

"The silver lining to this is now we've got the state's attention because we were going to put locks on doors in these two housing units to prevent something like this," Heroux said.

The men in custody were protesting being moved to other parts of the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction campus as part of Heroux's efforts to reduce suicides and close one of his facilities — the Ash Street Jail. The prisoner suicide rate at Bristol County is three times higher than the national average.

Heroux said prisoners presented a list of demands Friday that included turning on phones, improving the prisoner grievance process and providing more reentry services for people released from custody.

The housing units hold men who are awaiting trial. Heroux said many of those involved were repeat offenders and some who have been charged with murder. He said his team will review the events of Friday to prevent it happening again.

"My assessment is these things happen," Heroux said. " It's not the first time and it's  not going to be the last time either."

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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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