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Press Release AG Healey Finds Civil Rights of Immigration Detainees Were Violated in Bristol County Jail Incident; Makes Recommendations to Address Systemic Issues at Facility

Bristol County Sheriff’s Office Used Excessive Force and Risked Health and Safety of Detainees
For immediate release:
12/15/2020
  • Office of Attorney General Maura Healey

Media Contact for AG Healey Finds Civil Rights of Immigration Detainees Were Violated in Bristol County Jail Incident; Makes Recommendations to Address Systemic Issues at Facility

Emalie Gainey

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 (BCSO) 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.

AG Healey’s Civil Rights Division enforces federal and state civil rights laws. The Division encourages residents who feel their civil rights have been violated to call its hotline at (617) 963-2917 or file a complaint online.

This investigation and report were handled by Assistant Attorneys General Amanda Hainsworth, Joshua Olszewski-Jubelirer and Angelica Durón, and Division Chief Abby Taylor, all of AG Healey’s Civil Rights Division.

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Media Contact for AG Healey Finds Civil Rights of Immigration Detainees Were Violated in Bristol County Jail Incident; Makes Recommendations to Address Systemic Issues at Facility

Office of Attorney General Maura Healey 

Attorney General Maura Healey is the chief lawyer and law enforcement officer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
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