The day after Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux announced on WBSM's SouthCoast Tonight that he has developed a plan to close the controversial Ash Street Jail in New Bedford, he hosted a media availability at the now-defunct ICE detention center in Dartmouth where he plans to relocate the Ash Street inmates.

Sheriff's office spokesperson Jonathan Darling later brought reporters on a brief tour of the 135-year-old jailhouse at Ash Street.

Heroux's plan includes working with the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) to build out 120 single cells in the large open space where ICE detainees had previously bunked and transferring the approximately 96 inmates occupying Ash Street to the new facility in Dartmouth.

Heroux explained that he had conceptualized the idea to retrofit the now-empty ICE detention facility to replace Ash Street after a conversation with his predecessor, Sheriff Tom Hodgson during the transition.

Hodgson had told Heroux he had heard a rumor that Heroux would move the Ash Street inmates to the old ICE building. Hodgson had cautioned his successor that he could not do it because the Ash Street inmates need single cells and the ICE detainees were all bunked in a wide open space.

Heroux said the rumor his predecessor had heard wasn't true, but it gave him the inspiration to figure out how he could move the Ash Street inmates to Dartmouth. Shortly after, he came up with the idea to convert the open space in the ICE building into single cells.

New Bedford's Ash Street Jail Is the Oldest Operating Jails in the Country

The Ash Street Jail was built in 1888 and is the oldest operating jail in the country. It has been the center of controversy for decades.

Hodgson was steadfastly committed to keeping the old jail open during his 25-year tenure, despite protests by local activist groups and community leaders that the jail's dated infrastructure makes it unfit for inmate habitation.

Marcus Ferro/Townsquare Media
Marcus Ferro/Townsquare Media

Heroux had been noncommittal on closing Ash Street throughout his campaign and during the transition period, and in fact told WBSM in late December that he was surprised at the cleanliness of the facility.

Before he had developed a plan to relocate the Ash Street inmates, he had cited concerns that closing Ash Street would be logistically impossible due to the potential for overcrowding at the House of Correction in Dartmouth, and the fact that some inmates need to be housed in single cells. Heroux said these concerns would be addressed his new plan.

Marcus Ferro/Townsquare Media
Marcus Ferro/Townsquare Media

The ICE Detention Center in Dartmouth

The ICE facility was built in 2006 and held detainees awaiting process by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

However, the building has been vacant since the Biden Administration canceled DHS' contract with the BCSO under Hodgson following an investigation by then-Attorney General Maura Healey into a May 1, 2020 conflict. Healey's investigation concluded that the officers violated the detainees' rights. Hodgson maintained that Healey's investigation was baseless and a politically motivated stunt.

Marcus Ferro/Townsquare Media
Marcus Ferro/Townsquare Media

What Will Relocation of the Ash Street Jail Operations Cost?

In order to to execute this plan, Heroux needs to secure funding from the state.

"So my message to the state delegation and the governor is if you want me to close Ash Street, I'll close Ash Street. Just give me the resources to do it and we'll make it work," Heroux told reporters on Wednesday.

Heroux thinks that the project will cost about $10 million. He said it's a rough estimate he's making based on his experience overseeing capital projects as Mayor of Attleboro and sitting on the Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets Committee as a state representative.

He said he has began the process of lobbying the Bristol County delegation on Beacon Hill, starting with a taking them on a guided tour on January 27.

He has invited Governor Maura Healey to tour the facility as well and hopes she can visit the BCSO at a later date if she can't make the January 27 tour.

Darling told reporters that the relocation will ultimately save taxpayer money as the utility costs would be significantly lower at the Dartmouth building than they are the older Ash Street building.

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How Have Local Lawmakers Responded?

Heroux has some early support from local lawmakers to make the move.

"I think it's a great idea," Dartmouth Rep. Chris Markey told WBSM. Markey is a former Assistant District Attorney, and works as a criminal defense attorney when he is not on Beacon Hill.

Markey said that the Commonwealth's 2018 criminal justice reform legislation and the Supreme Judicial Court rulings that have limited the scope of bail holdings have made this maneuver by Heroux possible.

"The demographics show that there's less people incarcerated at the county level throughout the Commonwealth," Markey said. "So if he can centralize everything and continue the programming that's there, I think it's a great move."

Markey also said he believes it will fulfill the needs of local police departments that need a lockup and it will make the bailing of people who are being held more efficient. Heroux confirmed the regional lockup for local police departments would still be available at the new facility.

Somerset Rep. Pat Haddad called the jail an "antique" and said it has long outlived its use.

"Being incarcerated and what the expectations were of people who were incarcerated 100 years ago is very different than what we expect now," she told WBSM. "We want people returned to the community with skills and the ability to reintegrate themselves and be valuable citizens."

Haddad also cautioned that the process of securing the funding will take time.

Heroux expressed similar restraint in giving a timeline for the completion of this project, which he said would take approximately three years to begin and five years to complete. The new sheriff just began a six-year term.

New Bedford Rep. Tony Cabral, whose district includes the Ash Street Jail and who was one of Hodgson's chief political rivals during his time as sheriff, told WBSM that he's looking forward to the tour on the 27th.

“For a number of years now, I’ve supported the closure of the outdated Ash Street facility and I’m certainly open to a discussion on what the alternatives would be," Cabral said.

What Will Happen to the Staff and the Building at the Ash Street Jail? 

Heroux said he wouldn't cut any Ash Street staff if he is able to relocate its operations to Dartmouth.

One of his primary motivations for the project was to centralize operations in Dartmouth, where the House of Correction is, and that would give him the added benefit of keeping more staff there.

As far as what would come of building, Heroux said that is for the Commonwealth to decide since it is a state-owned property.

Ward 5 New Bedford City Councilor Scott Lima, who represents the neighborhood where Ash Street is located, hopes the property can be used to serve a community need such as housing.

"In the entire United States, I'm the sole ward councillor who lays claim to having the oldest jail operating in the country," Lima told WBSM. "I'd prefer to boast of having workforce housing built at the site of the Ash Street Jail, adding much needed housing stock to the City's coffers."

Marcus Ferro/Townsquare Media
Marcus Ferro/Townsquare Media

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell's Response

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, expressed skepticism about Heroux's proposal and cited several adverse impacts to the city and the region that could arise.

“The sheriff’s proposal may or may not ultimately make sense, but there is an array of considerations that need to be taken into account before any decision to proceed with a closure of the Ash Street facility," Mitchell said. “These include the operational impacts on the New Bedford Police Department and other departments in the region that rely on Ash Street as a regional lock-up facility, the impact on the surrounding historic neighborhood, planning for future use of the site, and, given the hefty $10 million price tag, the potential negative impact on other pending requests for state capital funding in Greater New Bedford.”

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