Immigration detention conditions in Bristol County, Massachusetts have faced renewed opposition since the start of the pandemic.
Each person signed the letter with their name, ID, and bed number. Some of the metal bunks stood empty, an ambiguous remembrance of a former occupant’s release or deportation.
When COVID-19 swept through Massachusetts in March, the detainees inside the Bristol County House of Correction Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) units were stuck sleeping in beds moored three feet apart. They were terrified. The fifty-one members of Unit B wrote and signed a desperate letter outlining their situation, followed days later by a similar plea from forty-seven detainees in Unit A.
Represented by Yale Law School’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic and the Boston-based firm Lawyers for Civil Rights, the detainees filed a lawsuit against Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and ICE officials on Friday, March 27, 2020. Savino v. Hodgson sought the release of immigrants detained in Bristol County to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19. The lawsuit alleged that Sheriff Hodgson and his staff disregarded social distancing guidelines, failed to provide sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment, and admitted new detainees without taking proper precautions to prevent the virus from spreading.
Massachusetts federal district Judge William Young began issuing orders to release detainees in early April, eventually freeing around fifty people. But those who were allowed to return to their communities found that Sheriff Hodgson continued to scrutinize their movements, and people who remained incarcerated reported that conditions did not improve.
Hodgson, who oversees Bristol County’s jails and ICE detention center, has positioned himself as a severe administrator since he was appointed sheriff in 1997. As a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, Hodgson offered to send incarcerated people to the US-Mexico border to build Trump’s long-advertised wall in 2017. A photo published by The Boston Globe at the time showed Hodgson wearing a dark suit jacket decorated with an American flag pin and sheriff’s badge. He posed, arms crossed, in front of a barbed wire fence.
Early in his tenure, Hodgson charged detainees five dollars each day they were imprisoned in his facility. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ordered him to return the fees with interest. Undeterred, Hodgson testified in 2017 in support of an unsuccessful state bill that would have permitted his controversial fundraising scheme to continue.
“That very well frames … how [Hodgson] thinks about incarceration and punishment, but also his mindset when somebody has the temerity to challenge what he does,” said James Vita, a public defender in New Bedford, Massachusetts who serves clients inside Bristol County House of Correction.
After Judge Young began releasing detainees, Hodgson published a list of their criminal charges, warning in a Facebook broadcast that “these people” could now be “wandering” the streets. Advocates said that Hodgson’s purported public safety announcement was deceptive. “Even if people may have been accused of crimes in the past, right now they are solely detained because they are non-citizens,” explained Oren Nimni, a staff attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights.
Beginning in June, Hodgson petitioned to revoke the release of detainees who left their homes in violation of a house arrest order. Some people had indeed tried to resume their lives, including going shopping or going to work, but lawyers found that many supposed violations were due to GPS errors. Moreover, Ninmi said his clients were not well-informed of the precise boundaries of house arrest. As a result, detainees were marked as non-compliant for going outside to their backyard or out front to check the mail. Judge Young has granted some of the bail revocation requests, permitting ICE to re-incarcerate people.
In a 2012 article in the Massachusetts-based Herald News, Hodgson described himself as a “pit bull on your pant leg,” referring to his tenacious advocacy for inmate fees. Recently, he ignited public outrage for wearing a Confederate flag-inspired tie in a 2003 portrait for the Sheriff’s Office. When the photo came to light in June, Hodgson denied any association with neo-Confederate groups and defended the tie as a patriotic display of red, white, and blue.
Inside Bristol County House of Correction in North Dartmouth, people were not in a position to denounce Hodgson’s ties; they were desperate for soap. The cleaning supplies provided by the sheriff’s office for the month of April ran out after a week, according to Ira Alkalay, an attorney for several current and former ICE detainees. Investigators from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) visited the House of Correction in late June and confirmed concerns about dirty bathrooms, overcrowded cells, and food safety problems in the facility’s kitchen.
Even before the pandemic, DPH had reported repeated health code violations in Bristol County, including scummy showers, dusty ventilation, and inadequate floor space in the ICE units. A December 2019 review of Ash Street Jail in New Bedford documented grimy toilets, peeling paint, and doors vulnerable to bad weather and rodents.
Bristol County Sheriff’s Office has historically denied or diminished complaints about conditions. Public Information Officer Jonathan Darling cited 100% scores on the county’s last two inspections by the American Correctional Association (ACA) as evidence of a high standard of care. For Mario Paredes, a lawyer for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, these inspection scores don’t inspire confidence.
“If you look across the board at ICE detention, even some of the ones that are considered the most dangerous for immigrants have consistently passed inspection year after year,” Paredes said.
The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that researches mass incarceration, states that the ACA is “well known” for accrediting prisons despite reports of poor conditions.
Asked about the primary purpose of Bristol County’s jail facilities, Darling said that they aim to provide “care, custody and rehabilitation.” A video published by the New Bedford Cable Network in 2015 suggests a different objective. In it, Charles Crowley, the sheriff’s late chief of staff, states that Hodgson’s goal is for people to “dread coming to jail.” Crowley says that Hodgson converted a gymnasium to a sleeping unit because his facility is “not a country club.”
Throughout April, Judge Young considered release requests from Bristol County detainees. Meanwhile, detainees developed statements about the conditions of their confinement, to be presented at a hearing in early May. But before the hearing, Sheriff Hodgson paid an inauspicious visit to ICE Unit B.
On Friday, May 1, 2020, Sheriff Hodgson entered Unit B to separate a group of detainees for COVID-19 testing.
“I told them that it was critically important that they go down to be tested at our medical unit down at the main building,” Hodgson said at a press conference the next day.
However, according to Alkalay, detainees had reason to believe that Hodgson’s visit was not beneficent. Alkalay’s clients told him that previously, detainees who were taken for COVID-19 testing were instead placed in solitary confinement. The Sheriff’s Office maintained that isolation was a public health practice and not a punitive measure. Darling said anyone who tested positive, was awaiting results, or displayed symptoms but refused testing was placed in medical isolation and monitored by health professionals. Notwithstanding the facility’s official procedures, Paredes said,“It’s pretty consistent… from all the individuals I speak to that there was this big fear of using COVID as an excuse to have people placed into solitary.” Fearing this isolation treatment, the detainees refused to leave the unit on May 1.
While detainees were being summoned for testing, one of Alkalay’s clients, Marco Battistotti, called to tell him what was going on. According to Alkalay, Hodgson interrupted the call by taking the phone and grabbing Battistotti violently. In Hodgson’s telling, he only approached Battistotti after calling his name, and he denied physically attacking Battistotti. He claimed that the other detainees in the unit rushed at him and one person threw a chair. Afterwards, Hodgson left the room and gathered an armed team of corrections officers outside.
At the May 2 press conference, Hodgson referred to Battistotti as a “con man” who “spends all his time on the phone talking to advocacy groups, pushing false narratives.” Vita described him much more modestly. Unlike many other detainees, Battistotti is fluent in English. “By default, he ended up in a position where he could communicate in writing and verbally with people who have authority over there,” Vita said. “The sheriff is not used to somebody being that forceful in pressing for rights and for accommodations,”so he identified Battistotti as someone to intimidate.
“‘Guess what? We’re still putting people in boxes.’”
Several minutes after Battistotti dropped the phone, another man picked up and told Alkalay in panicked Spanish that the detainees were being gassed. According to Alkalay, officers released tear gas through the air vents, deployed two stun grenades, and shot detainees with rubber bullets.
Three detainees were hospitalized following the incident, including one who had a seizure and another whose breathing was obstructed by a rubber bullet in his throat. According to Rafael Pizarro, an organizer with Bristol County for Correctional Justice (BCCJ), the statements detainees had prepared for the May hearing “mysteriously disappeared” from their lockers following the confrontation with the officers.
After the incident, Battistotti and the others who refused testing were put in solitary confinement. For three days, Alkalay says, Battistotti was left totally naked in an air-conditioned room. “I live ten miles from there,” Alkalay said. He sat in a well-lit office, in front of a framed painting of a sailing ship. “To think that my clients are being held naked for days…” he trailed off. “It’s just shocking, it really is.” Battistotti was in solitary confinement for sixty consecutive days.
When Vita visited the jail, Battistotti passed him a small styrofoam cup to illustrate the food rations he was receiving. On it, Battistotti had estimated his servings in pen. About one third of the way up the cup’s battered side, he wrote “pasta.”
His cell in solitary confinement consisted of a bed, a cement desk and stool, and an attached toilet and sink. His quarters also included an additional ornament: a bullet casing. As Vita understands it, his client was taken out of his cell to shower, and when he returned the casing was on the floor. Battistotti had not seen it before he left, and he believes it was placed there as a threat.
Before May 1, Battistotti’s English literacy had helped other detainees communicate their needs. Afterwards, the provisional community within Unit B was fractured. “I think one of the things that Hodgson was able to accomplish after May 1 was breaking up these groups of people and putting them in different units in the main building,” said Vita. “And I think that was intentional.”
While Battistotti and other detainees faced isolation, activists outside the jail gathered to protest. BCCJ has opposed Sheriff Hodgson since the organization’s founding in 2017, and recently circulated a petition demanding that Hodgson take down the Confederate tie portrait in his office. Lindsay Aldworth of BCCJ asserted that Hodgson’s tie and the allegations of abuse in his custody are closely linked. “He cannot be wearing Confederate ties, he cannot be doubling down when asked about it, and he can’t be treating community members as he is,” Aldworth said.
Hodgson’s portrait sparked outrage in a county and nation already roiled by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans at the hands of the police. On June 18, BCCJ joined with Black Lives Matter activists for a rally in downtown New Bedford, where not for the first time, protesters called for Sheriff Hodgson’s resignation.
Bristol County’s Black civil rights activists have historically existed adjacent to and in tension with the local incarceration system. Dr. LaSella Hall, president of the New Bedford NAACP, noted that New Bedford’s Ash Street Jail is the nation’s oldest operating jail, and the New Bedford NAACP is one of the organization’s older branches.
Hall has thick-framed rectangular glasses and a piercing gaze even over Zoom. He described Hodgson’s tenure as one component of a criminal-legal system that has traditionally placed white men in positions of power and black men behind bars. “There’s no political will to get rid of [Hodgson],” Hall asserted. “Massachusetts is overwhelmingly white, and it’s overwhelmingly people who… don’t want to talk about [race].” If Hall’s assessment is correct, it might explain why Hodgson’s constituents are not up-in-arms about his role as an advisor to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group.
Aspects of the May 1 incident stand out in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Attorney John Swomely said that the detainees were made to lay on the ground with their wrists bound by zip ties. “There are detainees who, when dropped to the ground, had [correctional officers] hold them down by standing on their necks,” Swomely said at a May 27 webinar presentation. Paredes also heard that officers placed their knees on people’s backs and necks, evoking the restraint used to kill Floyd. Darling confirmed that detainees were zip tied, but denied that they were held down by their necks.
Four months after the incident, Battistotti remains imprisoned at Bristol County House of Correction. And five months after the first detainees were released, they remain under strict house arrest. In early August, the plaintiffs’ lawyers asked Judge Young to loosen the house arrest conditions. “It’s really difficult to not be able to even go and buy groceries for your family or go to a medical appointment without notifying the court or without notifying ICE,” Nimni said.
Around August 23, officials placed Battistotti back into restrictive housing. Neither he nor Vita received a justification, but Vita suspects that the sheriff was retaliating against Battistotti for expressing his concerns to a DPH investigator earlier that month. Battistotti is still seeking release under the Savino lawsuit, but according to Vita, he is “very discouraged with the entire process.”
Activists in and around Massachusetts continue to push for state and federal officials to sanction Sheriff Hodgson for the May 1 incident and the detention conditions in Bristol County. However, as the county’s electoral politics stand, the sheriff appears unlikely to be unseated. Even if someone were to challenge Hodgson, Hall does not expect a sea change at Bristol County House of Correction. “Let’s say you get a nicer guy, he takes down the Confederate flag,” Hall said. “Guess what? We’re still putting people in boxes.”
Update from Mario Paredes as of Sept. 29, 2020: Marco was transferred to Plymouth County earlier this month, and another individual who was retaliated against after the May 1st incident is still facing retaliation for speaking up. Like Marco, he has been singled out. Paredes is attempting to get him transferred as well.
—Abby Steckel is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College.