DARTMOUTH — The video opens on dozens of officers in dark uniforms, dark helmets seen from behind marching in two lines from the yard toward housing unit GB at the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction. Inside, not yet seen in the video, 75 inmates who have trashed the place, tried to break open a few windows, who have held the ground for about six hours on a Friday morning through the afternoon. 

The video taken by hand-held cameras next brings the viewer inside, the air clouded by pepper spray residue, the floor wet, littered with debris, officers moving among the inmates, taking them by the arms and escorting them out one by one. The soundtrack mixes voices and people coughing, apparently recovering from the effects of pepper spray, as the standoff of April 21 comes to an end. 


What Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux wanted to emphasize in providing a first glimpse of what went on inside the housing unit as officers regained control is largely what is not there: no officers swinging clubs, pushing inmates around, forcing people to the ground. 

By the end of the day, the first serious test of Heroux’s new administration, other than one inmate who suffered a minor cut to the face, there were no injuries.

Neither the two-and-a-half-minute video itself nor images from it are being released now because the department has yet to blur the faces of inmates or officers, but Heroux said he wanted to show it soonest. He said he hoped it would provide a contrast with images that have become common in news coverage of law enforcement officers in violent encounters with citizens.

“This is never seen,” Heroux said, standing at a podium alongside the video screen in the function room at the jail complex. “Usually you see videos of excessive force … It’s just very professional. The public never sees this,” he said. “That’s corrections at its finest.”

Heroux, who took office in January, was conducting his third media briefing on the uprising of April 21, when inmates in two housing units went on a destructive tear — much more so in one unit than another. They issued a series of demands, barricaded themselves inside and engaged in a standoff that lasted from 9:30 in the morning until after four in the afternoon. 

This time, Heroux meant to emphasize how well the incident was handled by officers from Bristol County, five other sheriff’s departments and the state prison system, and also to bring state lawmakers in to lobby for the few million dollars he says the agency needs to make the jail complex more secure. 

The sheriff’s office had already released photographs showing the aftermath of the incident, which Heroux has insisted should not be called a “riot” because there was no person-to-person violence. Those photos of Unit GB show floors littered with toilet paper rolls, soapy water, fire extinguishers, makeshift weapons, toppled fans and cabinets. Television screens mounted on the walls were shattered, electronic security consoles destroyed, windows spider-webbed with cracks, but not broken through. 

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The 63 inmates of the adjoining Unit GA joined in the resistance, but did little damage to their quarters. Steve Souza, the Jail and House of Correction superintendent, said he believes that’s the case because these inmates, also in pre-trial detention, were not being moved from their quarters that day.

The essential picture of what happened has not changed since Heroux held his first meeting with reporters early in the evening on April 21. Inmates in GB, all in pre-trial detention, were about to be moved to different quarters as the jail makes a few changes meant to help prevent inmate suicides. They were to be moved from a unit in which the 49 cells are not locked, to units where the cells are locked. They were not happy about that and refused to move. 

As negotiations with inmates dragged on, Heroux called in reinforcements. He called the Massachusetts Department of Correction, sheriff’s departments in Barnstable, Norfolk and Plymouth counties. Suffolk and Hampden County sheriffs sent officers on their own. 

With Bristol County officers they numbered about 150. Heroux said he felt the show of overwhelming force would make it less likely that inmates — who could see the troops lining up in the yard — would put up a fight, and less likely anyone would get hurt.

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Heroux said of the 20 inmates who were identified as leaders of the uprising, 15 had served time in Bristol County custody before, three were being held on murder charges, nine for assault and battery, three on weapons and two on drug charges. 

“This was a dangerous unit,” he said, referring to GB, although he said the inmates did not differ from one unit to the other. Sheriff’s investigators are analyzing evidence, and no charges have yet been brought.

On hand for the tour of the two units were three members of the state legislative delegation: Representatives Antonio Cabral of New Bedford, Adam Scanlon of North Attleboro, and Carol A. Doherty of Taunton, all Democrats. They heard Heroux make the argument he has made before: of 22 housing units at the complex, 11 have no locks on individual cell doors because there are no toilets in the cells. That has to change by putting toilets in those cells and locks on the doors, and that’s going to cost more than $5 million. 

Rep. Doherty said she’d seen images of the aftermath before, but the visit to the site itself on Friday left her “amazed at the chaos.” Asked about Heroux’s argument for the money to make the place more secure, she said “I think he has a very good case. Absolutely.”

Email reporter Arthur Hirsch@ahirsch@newbedfordlight.org.

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