DARTMOUTH — Bristol County’s new sheriff said he wants to close the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford and consolidate all department operations at the office’s main North Dartmouth campus — if the project gets a few million dollars from the state and all the needed approvals from state and local agencies.
Paul Heroux said in an interview and a news conference Wednesday that no formal study has yet been done, but he believes that the immigration detention center on the main campus that was closed in 2021 could be renovated to accommodate inmates now held at Ash Street, a 19tha-century building where roughly 75 to 90 inmates are held in custody any given day, most for pre-trial detention.
The former Attleboro mayor, whose first day on the job was Jan. 4, estimated that the project would cost $7 to $10 million to add cells to the detention center now set up as a dormitory for civil, not criminal, detention. He said it would be “part of a bigger vision I have to bring everything onto one campus in Dartmouth,” including a training academy now conducted in a leased building across from the campus on Faunce Corner Road.
He said that money would have to come from the state, which owns the building, and the project would have to pass muster with a number of agencies, including the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management, which oversees planning and construction projects.
“We can do this if I get the resources,” Heroux said. “If the state is serious about closing Ash Street.”
During his campaign against 25-year incumbent Thomas M. Hodgson, Heroux acknowledged that his core supporters wanted him to close Ash Street. Believed to be one of the oldest operating jails in the country, a three-story brick facility that can hold up to about 200 inmates at full capacity has often been criticized as outmoded.
During the campaign and since the election, Heroux would only commit to studying the possibility to make sure that closing the place would not create more problems than it would solve. He said during the campaign and soon after that he would make no dramatic changes right away.
At a news conference Wednesday at the former ICE detention center, Heroux said that renovating the center to accommodate inmates now at Ash Street is an “idea. It’s not a decision to do this.”
A decision to proceed could only be reached after gaining the support of the state Legislature, the governor and a number of agencies. Heroux said the project would take years to complete.
Heroux said he first mentioned the plan to renovate the immigration detention center and close Ash Street publicly on local radio and social media several times since the weekend.
He said the move would “pay for itself” in the long run by concentrating operations in one place. All programs and food service for roughly 700 to 800 inmates the department accommodates on a typical day are run out of North Dartmouth, a 150-acre campus that opened in 1990, about a century after the Ash Street Jail was built to replace the New Bedford jail.
“It would be a lot cheaper to do all that on campus,” said Heroux. “It’s just about being efficient.”
Jonathan Darling, spokesman for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, could not immediately provide a figure for the total cost of running the Ash Street Jail, but he said a smaller, newer building would have to be less expensive to operate. He said Ash Street is 200,000 square feet, more than 10 times the size of the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center, which measures 16,000 square feet.
Heroux said his estimate of the cost of renovating the former immigration detention center — opened in 2007 with room for 132 people in a dormitory setting with no cells — is based not on any formal study, but on his experience with construction projects as Attleboro’s mayor. During his five years as chief executive of the city of about 45,000 people, he said the city completed a $260 million high school, $6 million in improvements to the library and a $4 million roof replacement project for several buildings.
He said he hoped the immigration detention center could be renovated to accommodate 120 cells, but he believed the department could work with 90 or 100 and find added room if needed in another building on the campus.
Steve Souza, superintendent of the Jail and House of Correction, said the department would need the option of holding inmates in single cells to separate people who may belong to rival gangs or have other conflicts that could turn violent. When inmates are first brought there, officers need time to sort out who is who and where they are best accommodated.
The county Jail and House of Correction houses some 600 to 700 inmates on a typical day, but can accommodate more than 1,000. Usually more than half of the inmates at North Dartmouth are being held in pre-trial detention. The others are serving sentences up to two-and-a-half years.
Heroux said the next steps would depend on whether his office can get the state’s support for the project. At best, he estimated it would take three years before the construction work would begin and probably a year to complete the job.
He said he had invited members of the state legislative delegation to visit both the Ash Street Jail and North Dartmouth campus on Jan. 27 to discuss the proposal.
State Rep. Christopher M. Markey, a Democrat who represents the 9th Bristol District — all of Dartmouth and parts of New Bedford — said Wednesday that he liked the idea and thought his delegation colleagues would as well.
“I can only imagine they would all be on board with it,” said Markey, a former prosecutor who has been the delegation member most focused on criminal justice issues. “I would be totally on board with it.”
He said he considered the $7 to $10 million estimate a “reasonable request. At least locally I’d be surprised if anyone was not for that.”
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell offered a note of caution. He said the proposal “may or may not ultimately make sense, but there are considerations that need to be taken into account before any decision to proceed with a closure of the Ash Street facility.”
Mitchell said the concerns include the impact on the New Bedford Police and other agencies that depend on Ash Street as a regional lockup; the effect on the surrounding historic neighborhood; and planning for further use of the site. Also, he wondered how funding this project could affect other pending city requests for state support.
The immigration detention center was opened in 2007 and operated by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The agency severed the agreement in the spring of 2021, and the building was cleared of all detainees by September of that year, Darling said.
That was more than a year after an uprising at the center in May 2020, in which detainees broke fixtures, mirrors and damaged walls in a conflict that originally arose over officers trying to move some detainees to the main building for COVID testing.
At the end of 2020, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office issued a report saying their investigation of the melee showed that the sheriff’s office had used excessive force, disregarded the health and safety of detainees and violated detainees’ civil rights. Months after the report was released, ICE canceled the contract with the sheriff’s office.
Heroux said he actually got the idea of reusing the detention center to replace Ash Street from Hodgson, who he said always insisted it could not be done.
“When Tom said it can’t be done,” Heroux said, “I thought ‘why not?’”
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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