Heroux ‘Surprised’ After Touring New Bedford’s Ash Street Jail With Hodgson
Bristol County Sheriff-Elect Paul Heroux made an appearance on WBSM's SouthCoast Tonight Tuesday evening a few hours after meeting with his former political rival and soon-to-be predecessor Sheriff Tom Hodgson and touring the jails and facilities that will be under Heroux's purview when he takes over on January 4.
Heroux toured the House of Correction in Dartmouth Tuesday morning and told the media that the facility very closely resembled jails that he worked in when he was a corrections administrator and consultant.
However, in the afternoon, when he toured the controversial Ash Street Jail in New Bedford, Heroux said there were a few observations that had taken him by surprise.
"When we were at Ash Street, I was surprised to see inmates playing cards and doing recreational activities – running, push-ups, pull-ups. There were also TV's in a number of places," Heroux said on SouthCoast Tonight. "Because I think we've all heard the stories that none of that stuff is going on."
Heroux also said he was surprised to see the inmates using tablets to communicate with people on the outside and order items from the BCSO commissary. He said the last time he had worked in corrections, tablets were an emerging and not widely-used technology.
The availability of recreational amenities for inmates such as TV and weights has been a long-standing topic of debate during Hodgson's 25-year tenure as sheriff. Hodgson famously removed inmate access to weights and TVs in individual cells – a policy he long argued during his time as sheriff, and most recently in his farewell address, was effective in getting inmates to focus on using the available programming BCSO offers, such as job training.
Bristol County Sheriff spokesperson Jonathan Darling told WBSM that while TVs have been removed from individual cells, it is still available in common areas that can be accessed during inmate's recreational time. Playing cards are also available during recreational time as well. When Heroux had visited Ash Street, it was during this period in the day.
Darling said the typical schedule for inmates is programs/classes in the morning, then recreational time, lunch, more programs/classes after lunch, and additional recreational time before dinner. This schedule varies depending on the inmate's unit and classification.
Darling added that all inmates have tablets that allow them to send and receive messages, rent movies and music, and read books. The tablets are charged overnight and given back to the inmates in the morning. According to Darling, the inmates have had them for "a while now."
Heroux also said that the conditions of the Ash Street Jail were different from what had been reported as well.
"It wasn't quite the horror show that I had heard about," Heroux said. "It was very old, but it wasn't dirty."
Heroux said once he is sheriff, he intends to open the jail to members of the media for a tour so that they can get an accurate picture of the conditions.
The Ash Street Jail was built in 1888 and is the oldest operating jail in the country. Many local activists and community leaders, including those who helped Heroux get elected, argue that the dated infrastructure makes the jail unsuitable for housing inmates and that it should be closed.
Throughout his campaign for sheriff, Heroux never committed to closing Ash Street. He cited concerns that its closure could overcrowd the House of Correction in Dartmouth and create some logistical difficulties with housing certain inmates, but he has also left open the possibility of closing it upon further evaluation.
According to Heroux, he asked BCSO Superintendent Steven Sousa what the issues would be with closing Ash Street and relocating the 96 inmates housed there to the Dartmouth House of Correction.
Souza said one of the primary difficulties would be keeping certain inmates separate from others. This typically includes inmates who are involved in gang-related matters, or inmates who need to be housed in an individual cell for other reasons.
Heroux also said a former BCSO inmate who supported to his campaign for sheriff told him that he prefers Ash Street because they have individual cells, as opposed to the double-bunked cells that are in Dartmouth.
Based on his initial observations, Heroux said the Ash Street Jail appears to be fit to house inmates, but he said that his opinion could change when he has the opportunity to do a more thorough evaluation of the jail and the rest of the facilities.
Heroux plans on having a group of corrections experts visit the BCSO facilities, including his old boss Leon King, the former commissioner of the Philadelphia prison system. He wants to to tour and evaluate the facilities with these experts to get their opinions on what works and what should be improved upon.
The incoming sheriff will also be asking the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to perform a series of audits of the BCSO as well.
"Sheriff Hodgson made his mark on the jail," Heroux said. "Now it's my turn to improve on his successes, and someday I won't be sheriff anymore and somebody else will take the jail and improve upon my successes. That's what we want to do, constantly be getting better."
Listen to Bristol County Sheriff-Elect Paul Heroux's interview on SouthCoast Tonight.