Violence at Bristol County jail over COVID-19 tests

Conflicting reports on what happened, but officials estimate $25,000 in damage

ICE DETAINEES being held at the Bristol County jail on Friday night resisted efforts to transport them as a group to be tested for COVID-19, but what happened next was unclear as correction officials and reports from inside the facility gave conflicting accounts.

According to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson’s office, the sheriff was “rushed” by a group of detainees who were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms but were refusing to be tested. The office said the detainees barricaded themselves in the unit, “ripping out washing machines and pipes off the wall,” causing $25,000 worth of damage.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said correction officials regained control and the detainees were moved into single cells in another area at the North Dartmouth facility. The detainee unit, where the jail holds undocumented immigrants for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is now empty.

Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken, a pastor with the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network, gave a different account. She said she got a call from a detainee in the unit around 6:30 p.m., who handed the phone off to Marco Battistotti, an immigrant detainee housed at the facility. Battistotti previously signed a letter in March to public officials asking them to assist in the release of detainees to house arrest due to concerns about COVID-19 spread in tight quarters.

According to Gonzalez, Battistotti sent the following message: “The sheriff approached me violently, grabbed my arm and scratched me, police came with pepper spray, spraying in everyone’s face and spraying in my mouth, and I suffer asthma. And then they retreated, a lawyer was on the phone and he witnessed everything, they cut off all the phones except two are still working. They’re outside with the canine unit, bullet proof vests, and riot gear. They want to take us to the other unit to be tested, we don’t want to go on the other unit for cross contamination, we want to be tested, but not moved. They asked us to pack up, which means we are being moved. The sheriff attacked me, he was out of his mind, I saw the devil in his eyes. What I told everyone in the unit, just sit down and don’t react and don’t be violent, take the punch.”

In a statement, the sheriff’s office said a group of 10 detainees in the B Wing of the detention center reported to medical personnel having multiple symptoms of COVID-19 on Friday, but refused to get tested.

Corrections officers, special response team members, and the K9 unit entered the facility with Hodgson. “Our medical team alerted me, and I advised the detainees that for their health and the health of their fellow detainees and our staff, they needed to be tested at the medical unit,” said Hodgson. “The detainees refused to comply, became combatant, and ultimately put the lives of themselves and many Bristol County officers at risk with their reckless actions.”

No Bristol County personnel were injured in the incident. Three ICE detainees were transported to the hospital – one for symptoms of a panic attack, one for a pre-existing medical condition, and another for a medical incident after being removed from the ICE wing. “All three are expected to be fine,” said the sheriff’s office statement.

Attorney Ben Haldeman had been visiting some of his clients at the facility earlier in the day, and was driving home to Connecticut when he received a call from advocates saying there was “a situation” at the jail. He turned the car around and arrived just as several ambulances entered the grounds. Corrections officers approached the car and asked him and another attorney, Ellen Messalli, to leave the premises or be arrested, according to video footage. They moved across the street.

“They wouldn’t tell us reason for lockdown. Once we parked across from jail across prison property, Sheriff himself pulled over and asked who was taking video and saying that that wasn’t allowed. I kept mentioning I was concerned about the safety of my client in there,” said Haldeman.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Several other people joined Haldeman and Messalli, saying they got a call from a family member inside who described seeing pepper spray used and people “fainting on the floor,” according to Haldeman. They also alleged that “officers themselves were breaking glass, and messing up the walls,” said Haldeman.

Congressman Joe Kennedy III called for an immediate, independent investigation into reports from victims, lawyers, and immigration advocates that “Hodgson and his deputies assaulted a group of ICE detainees held at the facility.” He told Commonwealth that every detainee present last night should be given immediate access to counsel and called for public release of any surveillance footage.

Some 48 ICE detainees have been released from Bristol County as a result of an ongoing lawsuit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights. The suit seeks the release of detainees due to concerns over the coronavirus spreading throughout the population. No detainees have tested positive for COVID-19. Several staff members have.

ICE officials could not be reached for comment.