Legal skirmishing continues at Bristol County Jail

Lelling, legal advocates spar over immigration detainees

EVEN AS COVID-19 deaths and infections are declining across Massachusetts, legal skirmishing is continuing at the Bristol County Jail over the safety of federal immigration detainees.

Legal advocates for some of the detainees say their clients have been held too long in single cells, segregated from other detainees, in violation of the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018. The detainees were sent to the single cells after a violent incident on May 1 at the facility that caused an estimated $25,000 worth of damage. Three investigations into what happened are ongoing.

Lizz Matos, the director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, and staff attorney Mario Paredes said that prisoners are being denied outgoing calls to attorneys, have no access to their legal materials, and have limited access to medical and mental health services.

Matos and Paredes raised their concerns in a letter to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and Todd Lyons, the acting field director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both declined comment.

Separately, US Attorney Andrew Lelling filed a motion to scrap a preliminary injunction issued by US District Court Judge William Young ordering the release of 50 immigration detainees to house arrest to lower the number of prisoners at the jail and reduce the potential for COVID-19 spread. In his decision, Young also paused all transfers of inmates into the facility and required COVID-19 testing for all staff, contractors, and detainees.

Lelling and ICE attorney Thomas Kanwit wrote in their motion that all detainees have been tested, and only one tested positive. According to a Hodgson spokesman, eight detainees refused to be tested and, per the judge’s order, are being held in single cells and treated as if they are infected.

Lelling and Kanwit said testing of staff should be halted. They said the cost is around $200 per staff member, and that the overall cost would be at least $120,000. “Given that the testing represents merely a ‘snapshot’ in time, that is a lot of money for not a lot of benefit,” they wrote.

Oren Nimni, a spokesman for Lawyers for Civil Rights, which is representing the ICE detainees in the class action lawsuit, said that staff should continue to be tested because they walk in and out of the facility often and could be bringing the virus in.

Lelling’s motion also seeks to halt the release of any additional ICE detainees. “The released detainees included persons with multiple firearms convictions, convictions for trafficking in crack cocaine, and extensive history of violent crime, including assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assaults/threats against women,” said Lelling’s motion.There is no evidence that any crimes have been committed by those released.

About 15 detainees at the jail have been transferred to other ICE facilities around the country since the May 1 incident. One of those moved was Abdoulaye Sall, who is appealing his deportation order to West Africa and was transferred to an ICE facility in Texas on Monday.

Meet the Author

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.

His wife, Yascaira Sall, said her husband was one of the detainees in the unit where the violence occurred on May 1. She said her husband was pepper-sprayed and kicked in the face during the altercation and was unable to call her for a week after the incident. She said he tested negative for COVID-19.

“I didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” she said. “In Texas, he’s pleased with how they’re treating detainees. Everything is being cleaned on a regular basis, and detainees have access to resources, like computers for their cases.”