Bristol County Jail ICE Detainees Express COVID-19 Fears
Immigrants detained by the federal government at the Bristol County House of Correction say crowded conditions and other protocols at the jail put them at heightened risk for contracting the coronavirus.
Fifty-one ICE detainees in unit B of the Dartmouth facility run by Sheriff Thomas Hodgson signed a March 18 letter saying inmates are in bunks spaced three feet apart and represent a group forced to live in very close quarters, a situation out of compliance with federal guidelines during the pandemic.
"This is unacceptable to the health and well-being of all detainees," they wrote.
The prisoners also claim that two correctional officers recently showed up for work exhibiting symptoms associated with COVID-19, a situation that "created extreme alarm and anxiety among all detainees."
Finally, the detainees allege that a medical provider working at the facility warned them that infection of their entire population is "inevitable" within the next 30 days. "Such statement(s) spread faster than the virus itself among detainees that are now extremely agitated and panicking," the letter states.
The prisoners said it is "imperative" that some of them be released immediately to reduce crowding, including those with serious medical conditions and those considered low-risk. Those awaiting bond hearings should get those hearings, and ICE detainees who have consented to deportation should be flown out within five days, the letter states.
The inmates' letter follows calls from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, three Massachusetts district attorneys, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and the group Bristol County for Correctional Justice for reduction in the number of incarcerated people to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.
Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts and the Mass. Law Reform Institute on Friday called upon ICE and county sheriffs to release all ICE inmates to quell potential outbreaks of coronavirus within the jails.
Hodgson posted his response to Twitter and Facebook. He said he has no plans to release prisoners, and defended his practices and protocols at the Bristol County lockup facilities.
“You know what’s not in the interest of public safety? Letting hundreds of people who were either convicted of a crime and serving their sentence, or are accused of committing a crime and were ordered held behind bars by a judge, walk out the front door in the middle of a public health emergency,” Hodgson wrote.
Hodgson said many of his detainees have drug issues "with compromised immune systems" and that communities across Massachusetts are without Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings because of coronavirus restrictions. He added that the released inmates would face bleak job prospects. Hodgson said that jails and prisons have protocols for dealing with communicable diseases, and that inmates actually have better access to medical care behind bars than they would outside.
“It’s not the right time to open the doors and release inmates. It’s the absolute worst time,” Hodgson added.
As for the allegation that medical personnel warned inmates of imminent widespread infection within 30 days, Hodgson spokesman Jonathan Darling said the statement is "a complete lie."
Asked about any jail guards exhibiting symptoms, Darling said two correctional officers were not feeling well, went home for a few days, and were quickly cleared by their doctors to return to work.
"No prisoner or correctional officer at our facility has symptoms of the coronavirus, and none of them have tested positive," Darling said.
Nonetheless, the prisoners said that having jail guards show up for work while sick "created alarm and anxiety among all detainees."
The prisoners' letter was addressed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Six of the 57 ICE detainees in Bristol County refused to sign the letter citing fear of retaliation, according to the letter.
Hodgson, a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, has been sharply criticized by civil libertarians and progressive activists. In his statement, he took aim at Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, a leading voice for decarceration.
"Instead of playing politics and dabbing int matters she has no eperience with, District Attorney Rollins should stick to the job she was elected to do; prosecute cases in Suffolk County," stated Hodgson.
Governor Charlie Baker on March 10 declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts and ordered a ban on all gatherings exceeding 25 people during the coronavirus pandemic. He has also ordered the closure of schools, restaurants, bars and other places where people congregate in tight quarters.