Sheriff Tom Hodgson, you may know, has decided not to take part in The New Bedford Light’s Chat conversation with opponent Paul Heroux. The Chat is a series of informal Zoom video discussions that I’ve been doing over the past year with newsmakers of the day. I had planned on doing three this season on election issues, including the one on the sheriff’s race.
But the sheriff’s campaign spokeswoman, Holly Robichaud, says Hodgson simply does not have time to do The Chat. Odd, since the sheriff’s own spokesman, Jon Darling, had originally said he did have time, and had even given me a date, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m., that was good for both Hodgson and The Light.
I’m sorry the sheriff does not have time. I’ve genuinely enjoyed talking to him over the years even though we’ve rarely agreed. He’s an able speaker on behalf of himself, and I’ve thought that even though he’s a conservative and I’m a progressive we had always wanted to hear what the other had to say.
Anyway, I’m not going to penalize Hodgson’s opponent, Mayor Paul Heroux of Attleboro, because the sheriff can’t squeeze me in. The Chat will go forward next Wednesday as planned. But I know that Tom Hodgson will want to respond to my questions, as he always has, even if he doesn’t have time for The Chat next Wednesday. So I’m going to write them out here in my column today.
Tom, if you’re reading and I’m sure you and Holly are, you can send your responses to either my email or The Light’s addresses: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m sure there must be some time when you and your campaign aides can muster some responses in the 19 days between now and Nov. 8. And I promise I won’t even complain that you got to prepare the responses in writing instead of answering them live like Heroux!
Question 1: The July 17, 2018, edition of The Appeal, a nonprofit online progressive publication that covers corrections issues, said that during your 2010 re-election campaign against then-state Rep. John Quinn of Dartmouth, you ran the following campaign ad:
“Jail is not a country club. That’s why once you’ve done time in the Bristol County House of Corrections, you won’t want to come back.”
You made similar comments in your 2011 Inaugural address.
“I said when I became your sheriff that jail will never be a country club and that I will use my government agency to minimize the financial burden to taxpayers of Bristol County who support our prison system.”
Here’s my question: Does this philosophy have anything to do with the fact that over your 25 years in office you have tried to implement the following measures? A $5 a day room-and-board charge for your largely indigent inmates; a $5 charge for medical visits; and $12.50 for taking GED high-school equivalency tests? The Bristol jail, according to The Herald News of Fall River, made more than $750,000 on that operation, much of it probably paid by the inmates’ low-income families. That is, before the courts put a stop to it.
Does your thinking on this have anything to do with your reduction of meal portions at the jail, or your contracting with a company that at one time charged as much as $5 for a 10-minute phone call? The state’s Supreme Judicial Court eventually upheld that dubious law but not before you reduced the fees to 14 cents a minute. You were said by The Boston Globe to have made $2.5 million between 2011 and 2020 on that practice.
I know that you have often said the state of Massachusetts underfunds your budget but is making the money off mostly moneyless inmates and their families really fair, and optimal toward getting them back into society? That is my question.
Also, does this thinking have anything to do with your elimination of TV, weightlifting and basketball at a jail where many of the inmates have not yet been convicted? Those get-tough rules were followed by the Easter Sunday riot at the Dartmouth facility in 2001. That incident, prompted by the removal of toothbrushes for everyone after some inmates had made them into shivs, caused at least $1 million in damage to the buildings and three corrections officers were injured.
I know that you have answered some of these questions in the past. After all, in July 2010 you told The Taunton Gazette the following: “The inmates are there to do time and make changes in their lives, not to watch television and play basketball.”
But I feel it is fair to ask the questions again, since it is election time and since the fact that Bristol County leads the state in the rate of recidivism has been raised during the campaign. Oh, I know. Those inmates were released from the state prison system and had nothing to do with your operation in Bristol County. Except, don’t a large portion of the Bristol County inmates who end up in the state prison after being convicted originally serve their time pre-trial in the Bristol County House of Correction? That’s a question I have.
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Question 2: A May 6, 2017 report by The New England Center for Investigative Reporting stated that Bristol County accounted for nearly a quarter of all jail suicides in Massachusetts from 2006 to 2016, even though the county housed just 13% of the inmates during that period.
That investigation also reported that Hampden County, where Springfield is located, had 10 full-time mental-health clinicians for 1,433 inmates while Bristol jail had just three mental health clinicians for 1,350 inmates.
We’ve heard your thoughts, Sheriff, about the tragic Oct. 1 suicide and suicide attempt at Ash Street Jail and from what I know of you, I believe you are sincerely distressed when these types of things happen.
But the NECIR report also recounted two suicides in 2017 that call into question some of the procedures in Bristol. Here’s what NECIR reported: “Court officers recently warned the sheriff’s office on two separate occasions that inmates were likely suicidal, records and interviews show. But both men were left alone in their cells and killed themselves within days.”
So my question is this: Is it possible that these high Bristol County suicide numbers are related to your “tough love” philosophy and practices? Is it worth re-examing whether your procedures are the latest best practices in prevention, given the worrisome suicide numbers?
Question 3: SouthCoast Today reported on Dec. 6, 2019, that you had dropped a dime to Stephen Miller, the most ardent of President Trump’s anti-immigration advisers, that your pastor at St. Julie’s Church in North Dartmouth had sponsored a display at the back of the church with cards advising undocumented immigrants of their legal rights.
Here’s what you wrote: “Stephen, I thought you might like to see samples of cards I discovered in a holder at the back of St. Julie’s church in Dartmouth, MA. While attending mass (sic) last Sunday, I noticed a holder on a table near the entrance marked ICE – Immigration and noticed the three stacks of colored cards.”
Father Richard Roy, the St. Julie pastor at the time, declined comment other than to say the cards provided information to the many people who go to the church and who speak languages other than English. The Fall River Diocese, however, said the reason for the cards is that Catholicism has “a moral obligation to provide support and care to the newcomers among us.”
I believe you are serious Catholic, Sheriff, and I know that you have said you would have reported anyone, in any walk of life, who was dispensing such advice to undocumented immigrants. You feel your job as a law enforcement officer is to report violations of the law. But my question is this: Do you disagree with Father Roy and the Diocese of Fall River that it is good to apprise undocumented immigrantrs of their legal rights? Do you disagree with the Church’s teaching that it’s “a moral obligation to provide support and care to the newcomers among us”?
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Question 4: The April 6, 2017, edition of CommonWealth Magazine reported that in testimony before Congress you called for the arrest of officials who support sanctuary cities. “If you don’t like the laws, then go to Washington and lobby,” was the quote attributed to you.
The same article reported that during a panel discussion at UMass Law School in Dartmouth, you said it’s a felony to refuse to cooperate with the directives of federal officials on immigration law.
But with an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants presently in the country, it’s clear that for decades now many employers and law enforcement entities have not actively sought to deport immigrants without papers if they have not committed a felony.
You were quoted as saying in the same article that you’d be happy to supply inmates from your jail to bring in crops and do other jobs that these immigrants currently perform. That, of course, was different from the time you said you’d bring Bristol inmates to the country’s southern border to build the wall.
My question is this: Do you really believe that county jails and houses of corrections could do all the work in this country that undocumented immigrants currently perform, including work like the processing of the seafood on the New Bedford waterfront? And do you really believe it would be practical to bring your inmates to the southern border? Why hasn’t it happened?
Question 5: On May 2, 2020, WBUR in Boston, in reporting on an uprising at the ICE detention center you at the time were operating in Dartmouth, stated that you used dogs and pepper spray against the immigrant detainees who were being held after they were charged with felonies.
The public radio station reported that the immigrants on May 1 who were demanding to be tested for COVID-19 did not want to be moved to the jail’s medical wing as you had ordered. They said they feared contracting COVID there; you responded that there was no COVID at the House of Correction at that time.
When the detainees resisted going, WBUR quoted you saying you told them the following: “You don’t have a choice. Either you’re going voluntarily, which I hope you will do, or we’ll have to take you down there.”
A violent uprising then ensued between the detainees and jail officials, including yourself. Attorney General Maura Healey’s investigation concluded that you had violated the civil rights of the detainees by a “calculated use of force” that was “disproportionate to security needs.”
Healey in her report said that your office had “unnecessarily caused or risked harm to everyone involved.” She recommended a series of reforms to the Bristol sheriff’s operation of the ICE facility before the Department of Homeland Security, under the Biden administration, eventually closed it down.
Healey’s suggested reforms included that your office “adopt enhanced policies and procedures” for de-escalation, conflict avoidance and medical consultation. She also recommended that you “implement robust training” for staff and contractors that included a focus on “diversity, inclusion and cultural humility.”
My question is this: You have called the investigation of Healey, a Democrat, and her conclusions “politically-motivated,” noting that you are a Republican. Even if that conclusion is true, did you consider any of Healey’s suggested reforms as having value? Did you attempt to implement any of them before the facility was closed down?
Question 6: The Brockton Enterprise reported on Aug. 20, 2018, that you had declined to allow Bristol County to participate in a pilot program for drug treatment at the House of Correction and Ash Street Jail. Five of the state’s 14 counties had agreed to participate in the anti-addiction treatment program.
The program was using methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone as methods of addressing long-standing drug addiction for inmates who had entered the jail with a valid prescription or ones who were scheduled to be released within 30 days.
Dr. Holly Alexandre, the head of addiction services for Southcoast Health, in that article said that medication-assisted treatment is the standard of care for patients in hospitals, and that jail populations should not be treated differently.
It is “one of the best things we can do to start getting a foothold on managing and beating this epidemic,” Alexandre said.
She further said she has seen patients who are already in treatment wind up in jail, where they have to stop taking their medication.
“That’s destabilizing them,” she said.
In the article, you noted that inmates sometimes hide and sell the medications, and that hiring the staff to oversee administration could be costly. You said you wanted to see how the pilot program went, and you also cited anecdotal evidence from an opioid panel discussion you had attended. You said at the discussion there was a man who identified himself as a biochemist and heroin addict who stood up and spoke against using one drug to get off another.
“I know everybody is anxious to find an answer, but we want it to be the right answer,” you were quoted as saying in the article.
My question for you is this: Given the high rate of drug addiction in Bristol County and the high rate of recidivism, why would you not take advantage of a state-funded program in medication-assisted treatment so you could judge first-hand whether you think it would work in Bristol County? You acknowledged in that same article that the Bristol correction facilities already administer Vivitrol, a form of naltrexone that does not make users high and has no street value.
That’s the last of my questions, Sheriff Hodgson. I know I’ve taken a long time in asking them, and I know I squeezed in a lot of follow-up questions. I also know I’ve asked them from the perspective of someone with a different political philosophy than your own. But I still think they were worth asking, and that they are worth your answering.
I still would like to know what you have to say. I think The New Bedford Light’s readers would, too.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.