DARTMOUTH — Floors littered with toilet paper rolls, soapy water, fire extinguishers, makeshift weapons, toppled fans and cabinets; television screens mounted high on the walls shattered, electronic security consoles destroyed, windows shattered. The odor of do-it-yourself booze drifted through the place, the damages estimate rose to about $200,000.
The scores of inmates who ran amok in two housing units and held control for about six hours at the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction Friday made a mess, and at least 20 will face criminal charges for their actions, but to Sheriff Paul Heroux, who faced the first crisis of his young administration, only one thing mattered: other than one inmate who suffered a minor cut on the face, no one was hurt.
“I could let them trash the place,” he said at a news conference on Monday, as he shared photos and more detail about a daylong uprising by some 140 inmates in pre-trial detention who were in the end handcuffed and marched out of their quarters by about 150 officers from Bristol County and six outside agencies. The main objective, he said, was to “not have someone get hurt — inmate or officer.”
Heroux, the former Attleboro mayor and state legislator who took office in early January, said “at no point was I making decisions alone,” but that he resisted the temptation to try to gain control of the housing units too soon, before reinforcements had arrived from the Massachusetts Department of Correction and five county sheriff’s offices. He thought the robust show of force would discourage the inmates to resist, and make it less likely that officers would have to use physical violence to regain control of the housing units.
He said his department will review how this was handled, what might have been done better, and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the incident. In the meantime, though, he praised the actions of correctional officers who took quick steps early in the episode to avert a more dangerous situation. He said he hopes the event shows state leaders that the agency needs the money to make about half the cells in the whole North Dartmouth complex more secure by equipping them with toilets so they can legally be locked, and with locks on the doors.
Of 22 housing units at the complex, 11 are set up with locked doors to the whole unit, but not to the individual cells in the unit. There were locks years ago, but because the cells are not equipped with toilets, the locks were removed by court order.
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Heroux declined to call the disturbance a “riot.” He said the word means there was violence.
“This was destructive, but it wasn’t violent,” he said. No inmate physically attacked another inmate, and no inmate attacked an officer or vice versa, he said.
He said his department is turning over surveillance videos and other evidence to the Bristol County District Attorney, who will pursue any charges relating to the disturbance. Twenty inmates — 17 in one unit, three in the other — have been identified as instigators of the disturbance and will be charged. Others could follow, Heroux said.
Those 20 inmates identified as “ringleaders” have been moved to jails in other counties. Of the other inmates who took part, 17 were moved to the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford.
Asked by a reporter if he was angry, Heroux said “No, just doing my job.”
Asked about the “message” he hoped the outcome would send to inmates, he answered simply: “Please don’t do this again. It didn’t go well for you; it’s not going to go well for you. You’re not going to win this.”
The incident that began Friday was touched off as jail officials continued what they had started on Tuesday, moving inmates in certain units from their quarters for a couple of reasons: preventing suicides and starting work on modifying cells to replace those at Ash Street, an antiquated building that Heroux wants to close.
Some inmates who were newly arrived and being held in individual cells were being moved to communal settings, as that is considered a way to reduce suicide risk. Others were being moved to make way for modifications to their metal bunk beds, which have been identified as a danger by a nationally-recognized authority on jail and prison suicide, who completed a study of the county system this month.
Heroux campaigned for the office in part by saying the county — which has led the state in inmate suicides since 2006 and has seen three times the national average of suicides of people behind bars — could do better. Weeks after taking office he contracted with Lindsay M. Hayes of Massachusetts to visit and take stock of the department’s suicide prevention effort.
Hayes recommended 23 steps the system could take, and Heroux said the effort began last Tuesday as inmates were being moved out of their quarters.
The 75 to 80 inmates in housing unit GB, got the word Thursday night that they were going to be moved the next morning. The trouble appeared to start that evening, as evidence from surveillance video and intelligence developed by Sheriff’s Office investigators showed talk of resistance circulating through the unit.
“Some inmates got in their heads they wanted to stay right where they were,” Heroux said. In a news conference early Friday evening, he said that rumors were afoot that if inmates were moved, their living conditions would be worse. That was not true, Heroux said, but the inmates could not be persuaded.
“These were tough inmates,” Heroux said, noting that all of those involved in the uprising — 75 to 80 in one unit, about 60 in another — were all being held in pre-trial detention, not serving sentences. Some were being held for murder, he said, some facing numerous charges.
The Jail and House of Correction complex on Faunce Corner Road can accommodate up to about 1,400 people, but usually holds 600 to 800 inmates any given day. Most of them are in pre-trial detention. On the day of the disturbance, about 600 inmates were being held.
The talk of resistance on Thursday night led to action the next morning. By about 9 a.m., inmates mounted resistance, and four correctional officers in GB retreated, locking the unit behind them. That move, Heroux said, prevented a potential hostage situation, which could have been much more dangerous.
At 9:40 a.m, an announcement over the public address system said the institution was on “lockdown,” meaning all inmates had to return to their cells.
Inmates creating the disturbance had broken some windows in the unit that looked out on a courtyard. They launched a destructive tear through their quarters, barricading themselves inside.
Through the broken windows, through the morning into the afternoon, jail officials tried to persuade the inmates to end the resistance. Inmates presented a written list of demands. They wanted lower prices in the canteen. They wanted reformed grievance procedures. They wanted phone service — switched off in the lockdown — restored immediately. They wanted more vocational training. They wanted more barbers. They wanted to talk directly to Heroux.
Heroux said he did not talk with the inmates, which he thought could have made the situation worse, but he did offer a written response. He said he granted some demands, refused others, and told inmates that he was working on several items on the list. They tore up the list and tossed it back through the window.
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Negotiations went on. After a certain point Heroux and his team of officials agreed the standoff was not going to be settled with reasoned argument.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Heroux started phoning for help. He called the Massachusetts Department of Correction, where he once held an administrative job doing statistical analysis. He called sheriff’s departments in Barnstable, Norfolk and Plymouth counties. Little did he know that Suffolk and Hampden counties were deciding to send officers without being asked.
Heroux said they needed the extra help to make the strong show of force in the two resisting housing units, while maintaining security elsewhere in the complex.
While continuing to try to persuade the inmates to stand down, the sheriff and his officers waited. By 3 p.m., they had seen enough, and enough reinforcements had arrived: about 70 from the state prison system, between 10 and 30 from other sheriff’s offices.
There were about 150 officers, but no members of the Bristol County Sheriff’s K-9 unit. Heroux said the dogs would just add more noise and confusion and not help bring the situation under control.
At 3:23 p.m., officers — some armed with “flash-bang” grenades, pepper-spray launchers and wearing gas masks — were lined up outside GB at the front and side entrances, according to a timeline kept by Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jonathan Darling.
At 3:26 p.m., officers pressed into the unit, setting off four “flash-bang” grenades a minute later. Some fired balls of pepper spray.
At 3:31 p.m., the first of the inmates was brought out into the courtyard, all handcuffed, some in ankle shackles. At 3:42 p.m., the last of those in GB were brought out.
Between 5 and 5:30 p.m., the inmates in unit GA, which was not as badly damaged, were also brought out. Perhaps for having seen the size of the officer contingent, and realizing the episode was winding down, Heroux said some of them had already started cleaning up the mess.
Email Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.