Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson speaks to Channel 10 news about his time as sheriff. Credit: Michael Morrissey / The New Bedford Light

The C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in North Dartmouth is now devoted to purposes other than holding people, and could stand as a monument to one man’s ambition, to reasons Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson’s supporters want him re-elected, and why his opponents want him out.

A nondescript, putty-colored utility building with a fenced yard, the center when it opened in April 2007 was Hodgson’s boldest step to date in a decades-long pursuit. His actions and words engaging immigration and border security have largely defined his public profile, and, his critics say, revealed the darkness behind the image of a gregarious, outspoken, public-spirited lawman.

Hodgson says his officers always play it by the book. A report by the Massachusetts attorney general, and a lawsuit brought this year by former center detainees tell a very different story, accusing the sheriff’s office of stunning brutality, including men saying they were Maced and beaten after they were tied up at the wrists. 

Read Jack Spillane’s column on questions for Sheriff Hodgson

Read The Light’s Fact Check on Recidivism issues in sheriff’s race

Hodgson has called both the suit and the state report — which accused officers of violating detainees’ civil rights,  and using excessive force against people who were putting up no resistance — politically motivated and based on lies. He questions why the attorney general never brought formal charges.

In Hodgson’s run for a fifth six-year term, his immigration activities have become part of the campaign, not least because of the confrontation at the center in 2020 that led to accusations against his department, and to the end of the agency’s immigration work. Before that, though, Hodgson’s immigration activity had taken him places. 

He’d been to the White House, and, he has said, to the southwest border more than once. Hodgson made national and international news early in 2017 when he proposed sending House of Correction inmates to help build the border wall that newly elected President Donald Trump touted during the campaign. He’s still on the advisory board of a national organization devoted to immigration policy that has been classified as a “hate” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Even now, some 17 months after the federal government pulled the plug on the immigration-related work of the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, Hodgson plugs the issue. Weeks ago on WBSM Radio, in response to a question, he decried federal immigration policy under President Joe Biden. 

“Their philosophy, let all the illegals pour into our country, let the drugs pour into our communities,” Hodgson said, repeating a claim he makes often linking illegal immigration and drug trafficking, focusing lately on the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Illegal border crossings have indeed reached new heights since Biden took office, but a connection between such crossings and narcotics trafficking is not supported by recent independent analysis based on government statistics. Hodgson waves that off, pointing to U.S. government statistics on the overall flow of narcotics into this country from Mexico. 

Critics question Hodgson’s focus on southwest border

The southwest border — when Hodgson talks about border security and illegal immigration that’s the subject — is some 2,400 miles or more from Hodgson’s office on Faunce Corner Road in North Dartmouth. His critics, including his Democratic opponent, Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, have asked: why is the Bristol County Sheriff bothering with the border and immigration? Isn’t the sheriff’s main job to run the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford, and the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth?

In Hodgson’s rhetoric, though, the danger gushing through that distant boundary eventually hits home. Local authorities are obliged to respond, and don’t underestimate the role of a sheriff, “the chief law enforcement officer in the county,” he said. 

“I’m somebody who devoted my life to protecting the people of the community,” he said on WBSM. “I’ve been to the border five times, I’ve seen what’s coming across.”

In an interview, he said his reasons for this concern are no more mysterious than his regard for the rule of law, his approach a pragmatic way to make the most of available resources.  

Hodgson has been engaged on immigration since early in his 25-year career as sheriff. His expanding role in immigration was due to a change in the law enacted in 1996 with bipartisan support in a Republican-majority Congress and signed by a Democratic president. 

Only months before Hodgson took office in the summer of 1997, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act had taken effect. President Bill Clinton assured that the law was meant to tighten border security and get tough on illegal immigration without affecting legally documented people, but it did not work out that way. The law affected not just the undocumented, but all noncitizens. Many more people were subject to deportation for even minor offenses.

The effect was profound for immigrant communities, including people from the Azores. Hodgson said in an interview that his efforts in immigration began with an effort to work with the Regional Government of the Azores, specifically the president, on resettling deported people back on home turf. His personal liaison to the president at the time, Carlos César, a socialist, was an official who worked for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, C. Carlos Carreiro.

As more people were caught up in the immigration system because of the new law, they had to be detained while their cases were being decided. The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office was already accommodating some detainees at the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth when Hodgson took office, but the demand grew. 

In the early 2000s, Hodgson’s agency signed the first contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold detainees. As these people are held under civil, not criminal detention, they were to be kept separate from those in criminal pre-trial detention or serving sentences, but new accommodations were not added right away. 

New ICE detention center in Dartmouth

Hodgson had his eye on that. A detention center right there, in North Dartmouth, made sense, he said. Otherwise, local people would be sent out of the area. There would be money in it for the county. Well, until early in the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick the state took over county budgets and started to “underfund,” Bristol County, Hodgson said. 

Outside of the ICE field office in Boston, the center in North Dartmouth would be the only dedicated ICE center in Massachusetts, and a significant expansion of Hodgson’s immigration-related portfolio. 

“I built that, with no state money,” Hodgson said. 

It was federal money, a cost reported as $3.2 million when the building that could accommodate 128 people in a dormitory-style space — no cells in civil detention — opened in April 2007. It happened with striking understatement. Without a news conference or TV cameras, without the tough rhetoric for which he had already become known, Hodgson unceremoniously opened the new detention center in North Dartmouth, later named after Carreiro.

Hundreds of detainees arrived and left for years without incident. Then came March of 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic. That quickly created great difficulties for anyone running institutions where people mingled in close quarters: schools, nursing homes, prisons, detention centers. 

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Bristol County detainees seeking better safety procedures refused work assignments, then filed suit. Dozens were released by orders of federal court and ICE, most to house arrest and quarantine. That left 25 detainees by the end of April. 

The first round of COVID-related trouble seemed to be over. The stage was set for worse. 

Ira Alkalay, a Bristol County lawyer who represented several of the detainees, said anxieties about safety in the center mounted. Inmates said they weren’t given masks; correctional officers were not wearing masks or gloves; and they needed soap and sanitizer. Making matters worse, Alkalay said, several detainees said that if they asked to be tested, they were taken out of the center and put in punitive solitary confinement in the main Jail and House of Correction building.   

Hodgson said this is nonsense. If inmates were isolated in a cell, it was a COVID quarantine procedure. 

May Day melee inside ICE detention center

Late in the afternoon on Friday, May 1, 2020, 10 detainees were told they would be taken out of the unit for testing. The Attorney General’s report says each of the 10 was reporting at least two COVID symptoms.

The 10 refused to go. Late that afternoon, Hodgson and at least one officer went in to talk to the detainees, leading to a confrontation with a detainee over a phone call he was making to his lawyer, Alkalay. 

It’s not clear exactly what happened in Hodgson’s confrontation with the detainee, but the Attorney General’s report says that a scuffle took place. Hodgson said the detainee, Marco Battistotti, a 54-year-old Italian native who had been living in New York City since 1993, was trying to stir things up by shouting that he was being assaulted. Other detainees rushed over.   

Pepper spray was flying. Some detainees said a substance was sprayed through air vents into the unit, causing many people to cough. “Two or three detainees,” the state report says, threw plastic chairs at the officers and at Hodgson. Hodgson said he was hit with a chair and was injured. The state report does not dispute Hodgson’s account of that, but found no evidence to confirm it.

The officers and Hodgson left the unit. Several detainees — it’s not clear how many — went on a rampage. According to the state report, they broke appliances, bathroom mirrors, sinks, tiles, they smashed walls, and filled a trash can with water. The report makes no attempt to explain this behavior, but Alkalay, who was on the phone with several detainees as the disturbance unfolded, said many were terrified, not least by what they claimed was a gaseous substance coming through the vents. 

Hodgson said this makes no sense. Officers were not using any “gas,” he said. 

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In a phone call with Alkalay from the detention center at the time that Alkalay recorded, Diego Armando Gullan Tixi, a detainee from Ecuador, said he thought people were dying.

“They’re putting gas on us,” Tixi told Alkalay, who is now supporting Hodgson’s opponent, Heroux.

“It’s going crazy here; you gotta call the news right now,” said Abdoulaye Fall, a detainee from Senegal, urging Alkalay to call the FBI and the media. “They poisoned us with something,” he said. “Call the FBI to help us …”

In the background, around that point, it was quiet. 

Soon the detainees saw a team gathering outside the unit: Officers in riot gear armed with so-called “nonlethal” weapons, K-9 officers with muzzled and unmuzzled dogs, Hodgson himself. The state report says Hodgson was preparing a “calculated use of force.”

In a recorded phone call, Alkalay urged the detainees to get back to their bunks and stay calm, to not provoke the sheriff’s officers. 

“My advice to all of you right now, is these guys are going to come in and they are going to be recording with video,” he said to Fall. “If any of you are in a position that can be perceived by them as a threatening position, that’s when someone is going to get hurt, and it’s not worth it. I would really strongly, strongly, strongly advise you, tell everybody to sit on their bunks and to just go silent so that when they come in they’re going to realize how ridiculous it is.”

Hodgson said that was good advice, but the detainees did not follow it. He said several were “milling around,” and some moved to the door when officers went in, about an hour after Hodgson and his smaller crew had left the unit.

“They rushed our guys,” said Jonathan Darling, a sheriff’s office spokesman.

One officer tossed in a “flash bang” or stun grenade, and about 20 officers streamed in, spraying Mace, firing pepper balls and rubber bullets. 

Here is the most significant difference between the story Hodgson has told in public, and the accounts told by the state report, Alkalay, and a lawsuit brought in April by 16 detainees.

The April 2022 complaint filed by 16 detainees

The lawsuit filed in US District Court in Boston in April 2022 by 16 detainees who were involved in the disturbance at the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in North Dartmouth on May 1, 2020. The suit claims that detainees suffered an array of abuses at the hands of the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office.

In his public remarks, including at a news conference in May, 2021, and in an interview, Hodgson insists the team response was necessary to quell a disturbance. The other accounts say that the disturbance had ended about an hour before the team went in. Many detainees were in their bunks. Some, when they saw the officers coming in, lay down on the floor, their hands behind their heads.

The attorney general’s report faults the sheriff’s office for not taking steps to avoid a confrontation.

 “…at no point between the time when BCSO staff initially exited the unit around 6 pm and when (the Sheriff’s Response Team) re-entered the unit around 7:15 pm did BCSO personnel take any steps to de-escalate the situation,” the report says. 

AG’s report on May 1, 2020 events

Read the full report from Attorney General Maura Healey on the disturbance at Bristol County’s Carlos C. Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in North Dartmouth.

Fall, on the bathroom floor with his hands tied behind his back, was kicked by two officers, according to the April 2022 lawsuit, while a third “emptied an entire can of pepper spray” in his face.

Six other detainees told of similar experiences of being sprayed in the face and/or beaten while they were already handcuffed, according to the lawsuit. The attorney general reported that the sheriff’s officers themselves said that most detainees were following verbal commands, and those who did not were not actively resisting. 

Alkalay and John Swomley, a Boston criminal defense lawyer, are not involved in the suit filed in April, but both separately took affidavits from detainees reporting these experiences weeks after the incident on May 1. Both said the detainees’ accounts were consistent, even among men who spoke different languages. Both also said that several detainees had marks on their wrists from the tight restraints weeks after the events. Both said several detainees had marks from rubber bullets on their backs, suggesting they were shot while running away, or while lying down.

Both lawyers ask: could men speaking different languages, who were separated after the events, somehow later collaborate to tell similar stories?

Hodgson adamantly denied that detainees were assaulted while restrained in handcuffs.

“It’s a blatant lie,” Hodgson said. “They’re liars. You’re not going to do that. My guys are top notch,” he said, adding that any officers who did that would be “brought up on charges.”

When told of Hodgson’s response, Swomley responded forcefully. 

“There are people who would say he’s a liar,” Swomley said, including himself in that company. “He’s a liar.”

Oren Nimni, of Rights Behind Bars, a nonprofit legal advocacy group based in Washington that is handling the suit brought in April, said his clients reported these experiences, and other detainees corroborated their stories “with the degree of specificity” needed to be persuasive. 

“I understand why the sheriff wouldn’t want to believe these things are going on,” Nimni said. While the allegations may be “shocking in that human beings should not be treated this way,” Nimni said this sort of violence by officers working behind the walls is not as uncommon as one might want to think.

The suit, now pending in U.S. District Court in Boston, was brought against Hodgson, the Jail and House of Correction superintendent, the acting director of the ICE New England field office, 26 unnamed correctional officers, the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies.

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In a radio appearance earlier this year, Hodgson dismissed the lawsuit as a political ploy, noting that it was filed nearly two years after the incident, and just as he was launching his 2022 re-election campaign. 

In a news conference in May, 2021, Hodgson lashed out at ICE for its decision to cancel the contract to run the Correiro center, a move that had been recommended in the attorney general’s report on the melee. At the same time, ICE also canceled its agreement with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office under which officers worked on investigations and enforcement with federal immigration officials. At the time, Bristol County had six officers assigned to work under ICE supervision, Hodgson said. 

The attorney general’s report found that officers used excessive force, violated detainees’ civil rights, and showed “deliberate disregard” to the risk of harm. 

“I was here,” he said at the news conference of that Friday, May 1, 2020. “Our people went by the book. Every measure of best practices was carried out here.”

Hodgson called the report by the office of Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, a “political hit” that is “based on lies” with “no facts.”

To critics, the melee typified Hodgson’s cruel approach to people in his custody. As Heroux supporter Laurie Bullard, wife of former New Bedford Mayor John Bullard, said at a recent campaign gathering, “He doesn’t run a House of Correction, he runs a house of horrors.”

For his supporters, he stands for order.

“No matter the political pressure he gets, he always stands for law enforcement,” wrote John Macedonio of Somerset in a letter to Dartmouth Week that did not specifically refer to Hodgson’s immigration activities. “He believes in law and order. That’s why he will get my vote. We are all safer with Tom Hodgson as sheriff.”

Critics decry Hodgson’s ties to ‘extremist’ groups

In his pursuit of “law and order” on immigration, Hodgson has signed on as an adviser with two organizations, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, founded in 1979, and a newer group of sheriffs across the country, Protect America Now. Critics say this is evidence that Hodgson’s immigration activity is extremist. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and public interest legal advocate, lists FAIR as a “hate” group,  and PAN as a “hard-right” anti-government group. 

FAIR’s website says the organization “opposes policies based on favoritism toward, or discrimination against, any person based on race, color, religion, or gender,” but the SPLC points to statements showing that FAIR’s founder, John Tanton, and other high-ranking organization officials have over the years made clear their focus on the racial aspect of immigration, arguing that immigration is a threat to White Americans’ status as the U.S. majority.

According to SPLC, Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist who died in 2019, said in a letter in 1993 that he had “come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” 

Immigrant advocate faults law, not Hodgson

If Hodgson’s immigration activities have been animated by racism, Helena DaSilva Hughes, president of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in New Bedford, said she never saw that. 

True, she was glad when the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office stopped working with ICE in 2021. That stopped cold all the calls her center was getting about deportations, and the havoc the removals caused in the immigrant community. But Hughes blamed that on the law, not on Hodgson.

She said the sheriff had always been cooperative in their efforts to work with detainees at the Carreiro Center, at least until Covid shut down access. She said she and Hodgson were on the same side in supporting an immigration reform bill in 2007 that would have set a path to citizenship for some 11 million people. It passed the House, but failed in the Senate. 

Hodgson said in an interview that he rejects SPLC’s view of FAIR and PAN. He said in his experience at FAIR gatherings, or interactions with members, he’s never heard remarks he considered racist. He would not abide that, he said. 

“I grew up in a Christian family,” Hodgson said. “We’re not about that,” he said, adding that one of his grandchildren is half Puerto Rican, another is half Cape Verdean. 

He insists his concern about immigration is not about “being anti-immigrant, it’s about being pro-law.”

Once a significant part of that effort, the Carreiro Center now stands empty most of the time, used occasionally for training sessions. Hodgson had a ready answer about whether he would like to reopen it again for immigration detention.

“Absolutely,” he said. 

(Arthur Hirsch, formerly of The Baltimore Sun, is a freelance writer and correspondent for The New Bedford Light.)