Paul Heroux, who did administrative work in prison systems in Philadelphia and Massachusetts before embarking on a political career as a state legislator and mayor, was sworn in as Bristol County sheriff Tuesday, capping what once seemed a long-shot bid to unseat a well-known, entrenched incumbent.
“This was a movement for change,” Heroux said in remarks before an audience of more than 300 people in a 31-minute ceremony at B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River after he was sworn into office by Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin. Heroux asked the audience in the Robert J. Nagle Auditorium for “patience” in bringing about the changes his supporters want.
“I take things seriously, but I do not overreact,” Heroux said in a speech that struck an appropriately measured tone, as Heroux the candidate pledged to subject the department’s programs to rigorous measurement, and to make those results public for better or worse.
Echoing themes of his campaign against Republican Thomas M. Hodgson, who held the position for 25 years, Heroux said he would place more emphasis on the welfare of county inmates by creating a new position of director of services who would oversee inmate medical care, drug treatment, food, education and other aspects of inmate life. He said the position is modeled on the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.
As he has since he was elected, Heroux promised no immediate sweeping changes to the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office. He has said he would be spending a lot of time at first listening to those who work for the office and trying to understand the operation.
He said he could not promise to eliminate suicides among inmates, but he said he would work to reduce the number. Public records show that 23 inmates have committed suicide in Bristol County custody since 2006, the most of any Massachusetts county.
Heroux, 46, a former Democratic state representative who left his five-year tenure as mayor of Attleboro to take the sheriff’s job, spoke for 14 minutes, saying that he would be open about his office’s successes and its failings.
“If we think we’re already doing the best we can, there is no room for improvement,” he said, adding that scrupulous analysis of department efforts is a matter of public safety, not an “academic” exercise.
As he said during the campaign, he will focus on preparing inmates to return to the community and not come back. He stressed the importance of the basic elements of life for returning inmates: housing, health care and a job.
Supporters in the crowd, many of whom had worked in the all-volunteer campaign, said they liked what they heard.
“I was absolutely delighted,” said Betty Ussach of Dartmouth, who was active with Bristol County for Correctional Justice (BCCJ), a core campaign group that encouraged Heroux to seek the position. “Paul’s been very good about letting everybody know what his intentions are,” she said, adding that she thought he would be hiring based on merit, not personal or political favor.
Marlene Pollock, a founder of BCCJ, said she was particularly pleased with the plan to create a director of services, which she called a “really important position.”
Before serving two-and-a-half terms in both the Legislature and as mayor of Attleboro, Heroux had worked about four years in administrative positions in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. In Massachusetts, he said he worked on analyzing programs and recidivism, a skill he has pledged to use as Bristol County sheriff.
Heroux stopped short of the dissertation in pursuing a doctorate in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, but earned a master’s degree in the subject there. He also holds master’s degrees in international relations from the London School of Economics and in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.
Wednesday morning, Heroux is expected to make the 45-minute drive from his home in Attleboro, the city where he grew up, to his new office at the Jail and House of Correction complex on Faunce Corner Road in North Dartmouth. As sheriff, Heroux will lead a department of 500 employees, 224 of whom are correctional officers, which is about 75 short of a full complement, according to the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office.
Heroux will have in custody an average of 600 to 700 people any given day in North Dartmouth, and about 100 people at the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford.
Of those, about two-thirds are in pre-trial detention, the rest are serving sentences up to two-and-a-half years, usually for such crimes as drug offenses, domestic assault, stealing.
Heroux pledged during the campaign to focus his efforts on running a “modern” corrections system, introducing new efforts to keep track of whether programs are working.
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In an interview last month, he said he would conduct a study of recidivism, focusing specifically on inmates released from the House of Correction, and make the report public.
At the moment, no such study exists, as Hodgson has said he did not have the research staff to do it. Heroux said in the interview that he believes he can do the analysis himself, and would be checking this week with the department’s information technology staff to make sure the material he needs to do the report is available.
He also said in an interview that he would call upon officials whom he knows in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to take stock of Bristol County operations and report to him on how he can do things better, particularly in reducing suicides.
While some of Heroux’s core supporters have called upon him to close the Ash Street Jail, he has only committed to studying the question of what to do with the jail that was opened in the 19th century, often cited as one of the oldest still-operating jails in the country.
Heroux, who has never lost an election in seven campaigns for state representative, mayor, and now sheriff, in the 2022 general election faced an opponent who also had never lost.
Hodgson, 68, who moved in the 1980s from his home state of Maryland to Massachusetts, where he has family connections on his mother’s side, served on the New Bedford City Council. He was appointed sheriff by then-Gov. William Weld in 1997. Starting in 1998, he won four six-year terms, running unopposed in 2016.
From the start Hodgson showed a gift for making news. He broke with his predecessor, David Nelson, by ending the practice of letting inmates use exercise weights and watch television in their cells, arguing that their time was better spent on educational and rehabilitative programs.
Later there were more headlines about Hodgson sending officers into New Bedford to patrol the streets, assigning inmates to voluntary work crews who went out in public shackled together at the ankles, charging inmates fees for haircuts, health care and other common services. At his inauguration at Durfee High in January 2017, Hodgson offered to send inmates down to the southwest U.S. border to help build the wall former President Donald Trump had touted during his 2016 campaign.
Some referred to Hodgson as New England’s Joe Arpaio, referring to the Arizona sheriff who also cultivated a national profile by touting hard-line immigration policies.
From the start it looked like Heroux was facing an uphill climb. Even Galvin, in brief remarks after administering the oath of office, recalled that Heroux early last year told him he was running to unseat Hodgson.
“I think you’re crazy,” he recalled telling Heroux.
Heroux often acknowledged his disadvantage in name recognition, and early in the campaign he lagged in fundraising behind Hodgson, who started out with about a $200,000 edge.
Heroux was able to make up the money deficit through October, as two national political action committees that do not coordinate their activities with the candidate, so-called “super PACs,” put more than $400,000 into the Heroux campaign. The support included a digital ad produced by a gun-control group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that labeled Hodgson “dangerous” and a right-wing “extremist.”
A super PAC supporting Hodgson, in turn, produced a digital advertisement accusing Heroux of being an extreme leftist, tying him to lax criminal justice policies, rising crime, and to philanthropist George Soros, a frequent target of right-wing advocates.
Hodgson made a strong showing in November in many of the communities where he had done well before, including Berkley, Dighton, Freetown and Raynham, but this time the Attleboro mayor cut into Hodgson’s advantage in the northwest corner of the county by winning his home city with about 53% of the votes cast there. Heroux won New Bedford, as all but one of Hodgson’s opponents had in the past, but this time with a substantial margin, making it more difficult for Hodgson to make up ground elsewhere.
Heroux won nearly 60% of the votes cast in New Bedford en route to victory with nearly 50% to Hodgson’s nearly 48% of the votes cast in that race.
Interviews with a small sample of voters at the polls on Election Day suggested that the outcome could be tied to voters, even some who had supported Hodgson in the past, who were unhappy with the sheriff’s outspoken support for Trump. Some also said they did not like Hodgson’s activities relating to border security and immigration and thought he should focus on running the jails. Some said they simply wanted a change.
Much of the campaign focused on Hodgson’s record in running the institutions in North Dartmouth and New Bedford, and on his approach to the position over the years to include more law enforcement and attention to immigration and even U.S. border security. Hodgson argued that while the southwest border is thousands of miles away, lax border security could make even communities in the Northeast vulnerable to more crime.
Hodgson succeeded in opening the only dedicated immigration detention center in Massachusetts at the North Dartmouth complex in 2007 in an arrangement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The federal government canceled the contract in 2021, a year after a disturbance at the center that led to a report by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office accusing Hodgson and his officers of using excessive force, showing indifference to the health and safety of detainees and violating their civil rights.
A group of detainees also brought suit against Hodgson and the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office last spring, claiming brutal treatment during the melee, in which detainees broke walls, mirrors and fixtures in their dormitory-like quarters.
Heroux has made no commitments about what he’ll do with the empty detention center, which since spring 2021 has been used for conducting training sessions, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He said he would not be opposed to reopening it if the federal government asked him to do that.
His focus, he has said, will be on preparing inmates for life after their release.
“At the core of what we do in corrections is God’s work,” Heroux said in closing his remarks. “It’s about working with people who might not have ever had their first chance in life, who many in society have disdain for. It’s about giving hope to the families of the incarcerated. It’s about giving a sense of purpose to people who work in corrections.”
Heroux noted in his remarks that Hodgson had been a “professional and a gentleman” during the transition, and appealed for support from all voters.
“I may have been one side’s candidate, but now I am everyone’s sheriff,” Heroux said. “Whether you supported me or not, I hope you like the work that is done and the results that are delivered. Time to get to work tomorrow.”
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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