On Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001, a riot broke out at the Bristol County House of Correction that was so bad that 12 corrections officers were taken to the hospital and 14 inmates faced criminal charges. One was charged with armed assault with intent to murder and another with hostage taking.
Two corrections officers were seriously injured in the riot, and one had to barricade himself inside a bathroom for 35 minutes — a hostage of the inmates, some 300 of whom were eventually said to be involved in the melee.
The sheriff of Bristol County at the time was Tom Hodgson.
As far as riots go, it was a much bigger and more destructive incident than the riot that took place last Friday at which no CO or inmate was injured and which was resolved after six hours with everyone involved remaining safe.
The estimated damage in the 2001 event was more than $1 million, and at one point the prisoners set fire to parts of the building. The estimated damage last week was about $200,000, and that’s with 20 years of inflation.
At the time of the 2001 riot, the 1980s-built facility included glass windows, which made the damage much worse. The violence began in the prison yard, and inmates used rocks to break windows, which then allowed them to gain access to unenclosed CO stations, from which they opened the electronic doors to all the cells.
The Easter Sunday uprising took place in the fourth year of Hodgson’s tenure as Bristol County sheriff. It was not the first disturbance he faced from the inmates. In January and February of 1998, there were incidences at the Ash Street Jail in which the inmates smashed toilets and sinks and damaged about 30 cells.
At that time, there were renewed calls to close the Ash Street building, which was more than 100 years old. But Hodgson refused to even consider the idea, saying he liked the dungeon-looking structure functioning as “a lesson” to those who were sent there.
There was at least one other serious uprising under Sheriff Hodgson. In December 1997, inmates at the Dartmouth House of Correction set fires and threw around body waste. That uprising was said to be motivated by cuts to counseling and religious programs that the then-new sheriff was planning.
Inmate uprisings, everyone agrees, are events that are apt to happen under all sheriffs and at most jails and prisons, be they run by progressives or conservatives. Former Bristol County Sheriff David Nelson, Hodgson’s predecessor, was much more moderate in his policies than his fellow Republican and yet there was a serious riot at Ash Street in 1993 during which more than 100 inmates set fires.
In researching this column, I’ve found no public comments from Nelson, criticizing Sheriff Hodgson’s policies, even though they were strikingly different from his own. Hodgson, on the other hand, was on WBSM-AM’s Barry Richard show analyzing first-term Democratic Sheriff Paul Heroux’s riot response, even as it was taking place.
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Hodgson had a lot more to say this past Monday on Richard’s show, claiming that Sheriff Heroux’s decision to wait six hours before efficiently and safely storming the inmate-held units could have endangered public safety by waiting too long.
Even though everyone remained safe under Heroux’s response, and several COs were seriously injured in 2001 when Hodgson acted more quickly, the former sheriff insisted that the new sheriff should have stormed the units sooner, before hundreds of valuable backup security officers arrived from the state Department of Corrections and the adjacent county houses of correction in Barnstable, Plymouth and Norfolk counties.
Hodgson also unfavorably compared Heroux’s response to a riot involving 130 inmates — some of them hardened criminals charged with murder and other violent crimes — to his own 2020 response to a small riot involving 20 to 25 immigrant detainees at his former ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention center.
“I hope the lessons learned in this are: Do what we did at the ICE building,” Hodgson said. Once the rioting detainees refused to stand down, the now former sheriff argued that jail administration was right to move quickly, lest someone gets hurt.
“They (the immigrant detainees) chose not to comply. And when they didn’t, we had to take back control immediately,” he said.
Last week, we all saw some of the videos of Hodgson’s response to the ICE uprising, particularly the specter of the aggressive barking dogs that were used as inmates were removed from the Dartmouth immigration facility.
Gov. Maura Healey, then the attorney general, described Hodgson’s response as “excessive force.” After an investigation by her office, the federal Department of Homeland Security soon closed the Bristol facility, saying the mistreatment of immigrants in detention would not be tolerated.
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Hodgson has long called the analysis of his response Democratic politics, but he seems to want to have it both ways when it comes to criticizing Heroux.
On the one hand, he said the new sheriff was entitled to handle the Friday disturbance as he saw fit. But then he quickly described the differences in the way he would have handled it, including by insisting that dogs should have been brought in to intimidate the inmates.
For Heroux’s part, he has argued, humanely, that the purpose of police dogs is to find illegal drugs or fleeing criminals. He had no problem, however, ordering the COs to use tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets (if they had been necessary) when they entered the two commandeered units.
Hodgson seems to be meting out payback to Heroux’s criticism of him last week that the ICE incident could have been handled without quickly resorting to using dogs in an attempt to intimidate the detainees.
In the Friday riot — and despite Heroux’s protestation, it certainly does fit the definition of a riot as there was violence done to property — the new sheriff waited until the inmates could see he had brought in an overwhelming number of security professionals from across the state. He then convincingly argued that this was more effective than sending in an outnumbered crew of COs with dogs. It prevented anyone from getting seriously injured as might have been the case if he had moved as quickly as Hodgson recommended.
In fact, at his packed post-mortem press conference on the Friday uprising, Heroux made a good case for a middle way between Hodgson’s aggressiveness and what he did.
Heroux said he did not want to move too soon before he had assembled the overwhelming force; he wanted to send a message to the inmates that they could not win. But he also said he did not want to wait too long, lest the other inmates (who had themselves been locked down for hours as the result of the two units that had been taken over during the riot), should begin to get restless themselves and erupt in violence of their own.
“You can’t send in fewer staff than you have inmates; you could be overrun,” Heroux said. “You could, but you’re going to have people getting hurt. That’s what we avoided.”
Sheriff Heroux also emphasized the importance of his daylong, repeated de-escalation efforts until the overwhelming force arrived from around the state. Over and over, he said, he told the inmates, no matter how unreasonably they acted, that the House of Correcton’s goal was to avoid anyone being seriously injured.
“The inmates had windows. They could see what was coming. And I think that’s when they saw well over a hundred (tactical response officers), they were completely outnumbered,” he said. That and his pledges to try to avoid hurting anyone worked, he said.
“So they just got down,” he said.
There are serious issues at the Bristol County House of Correction that led to the uprising last week. Among them, the fact that roughly half of all cells at the jail do not have locks or toilets. Among those folks not locked into cells are folks facing multiple murders and repeat violent offense charges.
Heroux has a plan to install toilets and locks on all the Bristol cells, to rebuild bunk beds in a way that lessens the chance of suicides, and to close the outdated Ash Street facility in a way that will save money and increase the amount of programming the jail can provide.
The inmates rioted because they got wind of the fact they would be temporarily relocated to locked units. They preferred the freedom of a unit in which they could more frequently move around.
The new sheriff got control of the situation and took back the unlocked units the inmates had taken over. He did a good job. The job that he was elected to do.
It would also be good if former Sheriff Hodgson gives Sheriff Heroux a chance to do that job without second guessing everything he does.
Former Sheriff Hodgson rightly points out that if he had done some of the things Heroux did — like using tear gas, flash bangs and equipping the COs with rubber bullets when they stormed the commandeered inmate units — he would have been criticized by some on the left for using too much force.
But he ought to grant Sheriff Heroux the same thing he asks for himself. A fair chance to do the job he was elected to do. As far as I can see, Heroux did a great job handling this first big test of his leadership as the new sheriff. In spite of all the second-guessing.
Email columnist Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.