Sheriff Hodgson Offers Inmates to Help with Hurricane Relief
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is offering to send inmates to Texas, to help with the cleanup efforts following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
The proposal falls under Hodgson's effort known as Project N.I.C.E., or National Inmates Community Endeavors. His spokesman, Jonathan Darling, tells WBSM News that efforts such as hurricane relief was at the heart of the creation of the project.
"The whole point of Project N.I.C.E.was to use volunteer inmate workers for major infrastructure projects or natural disaster relief," Darling said. "So over the weekend, the sheriff and I saw what was happening in Houston with the storm, and that community needs a lot of help. We thought it would be the perfect first endeavor for Project N.I.C.E., so over the last couple of days, we've started to get the ball rolling."
Sending inmates to Texas would be something that would most likely be paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Association, or FEMA.
"There are many steps we have to take for this to happen, but one of those steps is to work with the federal government, and more specifically with FEMA, to get the funding," Darling said. "If we do this, it won't be on the backs of our local or state taxpayers. We would rely on federal funding from FEMA or some other federal agency for disaster relief."
Darling said the decision to pursue sending inmates to Texas was dependent on the the willingness of the inmates themselves to want to go down and help.
"Without them willing to do it, we don't have a ball in the court," he said. "So we had our Inmate Work Program director check with the inmates in the program. She didn't speak to all of them yet, but she spoke to a good amount of them today, and we have 10 inmates who volunteered to go to Houston and help with the relief efforts."
Hodgson's office has also reached out to four other county sheriffs in the Houston area to help with setting up a work camp for the inmates if they end up going down there. Darling said they haven't heard back yet, although that's to be expected while they still have their hands full with the ongoing storms and lifesaving efforts.
The inmates who would go down to Texas would be "pre-release inmates," the same inmates who do local work in Bristol County such as picking up the highways, painting schools and prepping ballfields. Darling said to be part of that program, they must be non-violent offenders who have had no trouble while in custody.
"They're non-violent offenders who have passed bad checks, OUIs, things like that," he said. "They'd be at the end of their sentences, and would be very low-risk for safety concerns."
The volunteer inmates earn "good time," with a formula that takes time off an inmates' sentence for the number of days he works.
"That would continue with this Houston project, at the very least at the same rate they earn 'good time' for doing work in Massachusetts around Bristol County," Darling said. "They may even earn more for doing it further away. Either way, there is an incentive for them to help."
Darling said the Sheriff's Office hasn't heard any pushback yet from those who oppose Project N.I.C.E., but admitted it is early in the process yet. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the first proposal under the project, which would see Bristol County send inmates to the U.S.-Mexico border to help build President Trump's proposed border wall.
Current Massachusetts law prevents inmates from working on projects outside of New England, and State Representative Antonio Cabral of New Bedford has filed legislation that would block inmates from leaving Massachusetts, while Governor Charlie Baker has filed his own bill that would allow for them to be taken out of state, but only after submitting a proposal in writing to the Governor's Office, and given his clearance. In addition, Sheriff Hodgson has filed his own bill that would reverse the current law.
"We have many hurdles to climb. It's going to take a long time to get this off the ground," he said. "There are some issues we need to work out on Beacon Hill. Hopefully, it will be worked out sooner rather than later. After the water goes away, there's going to be a lot of cleanup, a lot of rebuilding for these inmates to do down there for months and months. We figure if we get started now, it'll be cleared up in time for them to start cleaning up and rebuilding."
In addition to overcoming the legislative hurdles in Massachusetts, the plan would also require the approval of FEMA, local sheriffs in the Houston area and the National Sheriff's Association.