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AG Healey finds Bristol County Jail and House of Correction violated rights of immigrant detainees, BCSO responds



BOSTON ­– After an extensive investigation into a May 1, 2020 incident at Bristol County Jail and House of Correction, Attorney General Maura Healey today issued a report finding that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office violated the civil rights of federal immigration detainees during the course of responding to a disturbance in the unit where the detainees were housed. The AG’s Office is recommending a series of reforms to address the systemic issues at the facility, ensure public health and safety, and protect the rights of detainees.

In a report issued today, the AG’s Office concludes that various institutional failures and poor decisions by BCSO leadership on May 1, 2020 culminated in a calculated use of force against the immigration detainees that was disproportionate to the security needs at that time and that unnecessarily caused or risked harm to everyone involved.

“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,” said AG Healey. “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. My office expects the Sheriff’s Office to implement our recommendations to ensure that the serious systemic issues we’ve identified at the facility are remedied.”

AG Healey’s Civil Rights Division opened an investigation on May 5, 2020 into the disturbance involving 25 immigration detainees housed in Unit B of the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center and multiple employees of BCSO, including Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson. The incident started with the non-violent refusal of 10 ICE detainees to consent to COVID-19 testing and isolation, which then escalated into a conflict between BCSO staff and detainees. Without minimizing the fact that some of the detainees acted in a disruptive and destructive way during this conflict, the AG’s Office found that the detainees had been calm and nonviolent for an hour by the time BCSO executed a calculated use of force, which utilized a variety of weapons systems, including a flash bang grenade, pepper spray and pepper-ball, anti-riot shields, and canines. The report released today memorializes the AG’s Office’s findings and conclusions based on a thorough and comprehensive review of the available evidence, including videos from the incident, hundreds of pages of documents, and interviews with BCSO staff members, detainees, and their lawyers, advocates, family members, and friends.

The AG’s report finds that the BCSO violated the civil rights of the ICE detainees in two ways—(1) the BCSO’s use of force was excessive and disproportionate based on the totality of the circumstances; (2) the BCSO acted with deliberate indifference to a significant risk of serious harm to the health of several detainees.

The evidence that the AG’s Office reviewed shows that the BCSO used a variety of dangerous weapons against detainees who had exhibited calm and nonviolent behavior for at least an hour before the operation. The AG’s Office found that the BCSO unlawfully used canines, failed to take any steps to de-escalate the situation in violation of its own policies and procedures, and failed to warn the detainees in violation of its own policies and procedures, including those who may not have understood verbal directives because of language barriers, before using substantial force against them. According to the AG’s investigation, the BCSO also used an excessive amount of pepper spray and pepper-ball, including against detainees with serious pulmonary or respiratory conditions and detainees suspected of having COVID-19, which can cause serious respiratory symptoms. The AG’s Office found that so much pepper spray was used that two detainees had to be taken to the hospital with symptoms of respiratory distress and that a third detainee required the administration of emergency chest compressions to be revived, but was not taken to the hospital for a medical evaluation or assessment and was instead placed in segregation.

The AG’s Office is recommending BCSO implement a series of reforms to help protect the people who depend on the BCSO to provide a safe place to serve their sentences or await future court proceedings, and to help protect the employees and contractors who depend on BCSO leadership to provide a safe working environment. The AG’s Office reserves its right to pursue litigation on some or all of the issues identified in the investigation in the event that the recommendations are not satisfactorily implemented or addressed.

Specifically, the report recommends that the BCSO:

Adopt Enhanced Policies and Procedures: Adopt enhanced language access and enhanced policies and procedures for de-escalation, conflict avoidance, and medical consultation and review before, during, and after a calculated use of force that involves chemical agents and pepper spray. Enhance reporting requirements for use of force and for health care staff following a calculated use of force. Revise and update policies related to chain of command.

Implement Robust Training: Adopt a training program that is focused on the implementation of the enhanced policies and procedures and include a training module for all staff and contractors who work on-site on diversity, inclusion, and cultural humility and working with individuals with no or limited English language proficiency.

Strengthen Policies for Housing Federal Immigration Detainees: If BCSO continues to house federal immigration detainees, adopt a training module as part of its annual in-service training on federal immigration detainees, and immediately remedy all deficiencies identified in the recent U.S. Department Homeland Security (DHS) inspection report.

Retain an Auditor or Consultant: Retain an external auditor or consultant to assess its compliance across the institution with all relevant laws, policies, and procedures that relate to the use of force, special management units, and the provision of health care.

The AG’s Office also recommends that DHS terminate its partnership with the BCSO or alternatively, that the Massachusetts General Court enact legislation to prevent the Bristol County Sheriff from housing immigration detainees or participating in federal immigration enforcement in any respect. These steps are particularly necessary if the BCSO doesn’t adopt the reforms outlined in the report in full and expeditiously.

In the report, the AG’s Office also recommends that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health conduct a review of the BCSO’s medical recordkeeping practices, and that the Executive Office of Public Safety & Security conduct a robust and thorough review of the BCSO’s policies and procedures to ensure that they meet the minimum regulatory requirements.

We contacted the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office and they issued the following statement.

“Shame on Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey for demonizing the corrections and law enforcement professionals at the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office with her latest politically motivated stunt.”

“The report released Tuesday on her office’s investigation into the May 1 incident at the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detection Center in Dartmouth is littered with baseless allegations and assumptions, and was clearly written and released to advance her long-documented anti-ICE, pro-illegal immigrant political agenda. Why would the AG’s staff interview community advocates but not ask Sheriff Hodgson a single question?”

“The corrections teams at the BCSO risked their lives to quell a violent altercation with criminal illegal aliens on May 1 and did so with the upmost professionalism. We 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.”

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