DARTMOUTH — Up to 200 officers from the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, other counties and the state prison system joined forces to quell a disturbance at the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth late Friday afternoon, hours after scores of inmates resisted orders to move to different quarters, issued demands and launched a destructive tear in their housing units, the sheriff said.
One inmate suffered a minor cut, perhaps from slipping and falling, but otherwise no inmates or correctional officers were injured as they took control of the units with a show of force — but without using force, said Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux. He said the property damage to the two units was estimated at between $100,000 and $200,000.
“I think the fact that no one was hurt shows this was handled” properly, said Heroux, who took office in January after winning an election campaign against a 25-year incumbent in which he promised to focus on improving inmate conditions and programs meant to help people get their lives back on track after serving their sentences.
Nearly 140 inmates, all in pre-trial detention, were taken out in handcuffs late on Friday afternoon, some also in ankle shackles. Officials decided to take control of the two housing units shortly after 3 p.m., roughly six hours after conditions in the two units started to “go sideways,” as Heroux put it in an early evening news conference.
Jail superintendent Steve Souza said 100 to 200 officers were involved in taking control of the two units, entering from two different sides of each. Inmates had tried to barricade the doors with mattresses and furniture, Heroux said.
Heroux said 17 from one unit and three from another were considered “agitators” who led the others in resisting orders to move out of their housing units on Friday morning. Those 20 inmates were moved to other county jails, and the other inmates were moved to different parts of the Jail and House of Correction, as the housing units that were damaged were no longer habitable.
News helicopters circled overhead all day Friday, while roughly a dozen reporters and videographers gathered in a parking lot near the main entrance to the complex. After 2 p.m., vehicles streamed in from outside agencies, including the Massachusetts Department of Correction, and county sheriff’s offices in Plymouth, Barnstable, Norfolk, Suffolk and Hampden counties.
The state Department of Correction sent three empty school buses, but they were not needed to transport inmates to other jails. A Dartmouth Fire Department truck arrived in the morning as a precaution, because inmates had set several fires, Souza said.
Heroux said the orders issued Friday were a continuation of efforts that began Tuesday to clear certain sections of the building to begin work on modifications to the cells meant to help prevent suicides and to create cells that could replace those at the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford. Heroux has said he intends to close the facility, which was built in the 19th century.
Part of the work at the Dartmouth campus, which opened in 1990, is to add door locks and toilets to cells that now do not have them in hopes of using these cells to replace those at Ash Street, which can accommodate about 100 inmates in pre-trial detention. Heroux said about half the cells in the Jail and House of Correction, which can house up to 1,400 people, are in parts of the jail where the housing module has a locked door, but not each individual room.
He and Souza said these efforts to move inmates had been conducted without incident all week, until Friday.
Heroux said inmates in those two housing units were told at about 7 a.m. that they were going to be asked to move, and trouble started at about 9 a.m. Two correctional officers were in the unit housing roughly 75 to 80 inmates when the trouble started.
At about 9:40 a.m., an announcement over the public address system said the building was on “lockdown,” meaning inmates had to return to their cells.
Heroux said it appeared that word of the orders to move generated rumors among the inmates that their living conditions were about to change for the worse. He said efforts to convince the inmates otherwise failed, as did Heroux’s attempt to respond to a list of demands presented by the inmates.
“People don’t like change,” said Souza, who has worked for the agency for more than 30 years.
Among the demands presented in writing, Heroux said, were to lower canteen prices, return televisions to the cells, offer more vocational training and other programs and provide more barbers.
He said he responded to these in writing, noting that he had campaigned for office promising to do some of those things and that changes were in the works. The inmates were presented with his response in writing, and responded in turn by tearing up Heroux’s response, he said.
Meanwhile, inmates in the unit accommodating 75 to 80 inmates went on a particularly destructive rampage, Heroux said. They broke windows, security cameras, pipes, electric fans and bed frames. They fashioned weapons from some broken pieces, but never used them against correctional officers.
The sheriff said several different officials were sent into the units to try to negotiate a resolution, but their efforts were rebuffed. He said they considered just waiting it out, but decided that approach would prolong the lockdown and risk stirring up other inmates on the campus.
The Jail and House of Correction accommodates between 600 to 800 people any given day in pre-trial detention and serving sentences up to two-and-a-half years. On Friday, there were about 600 inmates on the campus, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jonathan Darling.
Heroux made no mention of the incident that broke out in the spring of 2020 at the now-closed immigration detention center on the Dartmouth campus, in which several detainees suffered minor injuries. That disturbance, under former Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, led to the closing of the detention center after the state attorney general’s office concluded that the sheriff’s officers had used excessive force and violated detainees’ civil rights.
Heroux said charges against some inmates would be pursued as an investigation of what happened and whether it could have been prevented. Heroux, a former state representative and mayor of Attleboro, said state officials, including Gov. Maura Healey, would be invited to the campus in hopes of emphasizing the need for help in making the institution more secure by equipping all cells with toilets and locked doors.
Those changes, he said, would have prevented this incident.
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at email@example.com.
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It’s not a hotel, it’s a jail. Too bad if they didn’t want to move. Though I’m glad no one was seriously hurt, the correctional officers should have moved in sooner. $100,000/$300,000 worth of damage is a lot. Who’s pocket will this be coming from to replace the damage???
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