Hodgson said he confronted detainees himself

Accuses one of detainees of being a con man

BRISTOL COUNTY SHERIFF Thomas Hodgson said on Saturday that he was front and center in the violent altercation between corrections officials and immigration detainees over COVID-19 testing and ridiculed calls for an outside investigation by US Rep. Joe Kennedy III and others.

The sheriff said the situation began when around 10 detainees being held at the jail for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reported they had at least two COVID-19 symptoms. It was decided they would be tested in the medical unit in another building and put into isolation after, but the detainees refused to go. The detainees were concerned about being contaminated in transit, and about an unclean environment at the medical unit.

Hodgson said he confronted the detainees himself. “I spoke to the first individual and said, ‘You don’t have a choice. Either you’re gonna go down on your own, or we’re gonna have to take you down,’” said Hodgson. He said the men refused twice when their names were called.

Hodgson claims he and corrections officers were “rushed” by a group of 10 after he asked a detainee on the phone to hang up and leave the unit to be tested for coronavirus. The detainee refused.

“At that point I went to grab the phone and, of course, as con men always do, and that’s well known, it’s in his history, [he] said stop hitting me, don’t touch me, obviously for the advantage of the other person on the phone, as if he were being somehow assaulted or injured,” said Hodgson. The sheriff said another detainee later hit him with a chair.

Hodgson said the detainees barricaded themselves in the unit, “ripping out washing machines and pipes off the wall,” causing $25,000 worth of damage. The sheriff said the damage made the unit “uninhabitable” and the detainees were transferred to single cells in another building. It’s unclear whether they were tested for COVID-19.

Hodgson said his office is reviewing video footage of the incident in preparation for filing charges against some of the detainees.

He placed the blame squarely on the detainees themselves, their “activist attorneys and activist judges,” and “people like Joe Kennedy,” who called for an independent investigation of the incident. Hodgson said the advocates and elected officials were stirring the pot for “their own political agendas.”

A class action lawsuit filed by attorneys representing many of the detainees seeks their release to house arrest to reduce the possibility of COVID-19 exposure. US District Court Judge William Young, who is overseeing the litigation, has released about 48 people so far.

A sign for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

After the altercation Friday night, three detainees were sent to the hospital. According to the sheriff’s office, one was exhibiting symptoms of a panic attack, a second was being treated for a pre-existing medical condition, and a third for a medical incident after being forcibly removed.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit seeking the release of detainees, said the three detainees who were hospitalized were members of the class action. Espinoza-Madrigal said the Friday night incident was not surprising, given Hodgson’s history.

“In his multiple appearances on Fox News and in other media, he has publicly expressed anger regarding this litigation and the federal court’s decision to release individuals on bail so that they can safely quarantine at home,” he said.

Espinoza-Madrigal said Lawyers for Civil Rights is reviewing details and will consider pursuing a parallel lawsuit if any detainees sustained injuries.

One detainee, Marco Battistotti, called Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken, an advocate for immigrants, while they were barricading themselves in the unit. According to Milliken, Battistotti told her the sheriff grabbed his arm and scratched him and that police pepper-sprayed him and others.

“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,” Milliken quoted Battistotti as saying. (For the full text, see our story from Friday.)

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 of COVID-19 spread in tight quarters.

Ira Alkalay, an attorney with four clients at the facility, said he was on the phone with one of the detainees when everything occurred. “They wanted to be tested where they were because they thought this was a ruse to isolate or punish them in some way. They also didn’t want to be exposed to the virus,” Alkalay said.

Another detainee who was not his client called him later, Alkalay said. “He was absolutely panicking, crying, and coughing, and said they were being gassed,” Alkalay said.

Fatima Charz Nohemy said she spoke with her husband, one of the detainees, on Friday night. She said her husband is supposed to be released soon as part of the court proceeding, but now is worried that might not happen. “He called me and said he was attacked by guards and that he was afraid of being taken to isolation,” she said.

Kennedy, who is running for US Senate, called for an independent investigation of the incident, saying that “Hodgson and his deputies assaulted a group of ICE detainees held at the facility.” He said every detainee present last night should be given immediate access to counsel and called for public release of any surveillance footage.

Kennedy was not alone in calling for an investigation. He was joined by Sen. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Hodgson said Kennedy and the others were jumping to conclusions without first calling to ask for details.

“I want him to tell us, which local authorities did you call Joe Kennedy? What advocates did you call, Joe Kennedy, who didn’t know what was going on and didn’t have the facts,” said Hodgson, spending about a quarter of his press conference talking about Kennedy and Warren, and suggested an investigation “be made into them.”

Kennedy said he did reach out to Hodgson without success. “I tried a couple different numbers for him,” he said in a Zoom press conference. “I’m looking forward to speaking with him directly when he has a moment.”

Kennedy said he is calling for “100 percent clarity to know what just transpired, and who if anyone needs to be held accountable.”

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz tried to exercise her right under a state statute as a legislator to enter the facility unannounced on Saturday morning, but was turned away at the gate, and not allowed to enter for a press conference. “They refused me entry and asked me to leave parking lot and property,” she said.

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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.

Chang-Diaz said she wants to keep an open mind, and that there are “five sides or so to every story.”

But that’s why I tried to fulfill my duty to exercise that option to do fact-finding,” she said. Chang-Diaz wants to talk to personnel and detainees about what happened, and said talking to Hodgson will be a next step now that she was turned away.