Recordings of detainees at Bristol jail released

Calls were made as pepper spray was being used

AN ADVOCATE FOR TWO immigration detainees at the Bristol County Jail released two phone recordings from inside the facility briefly describing the confrontation with Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and his deputies Friday night.

The recordings add some context for what happened. The advocate provided the recordings on the condition the detainees not be identified.

One of the detainees, speaking in Spanish, describes the situation as he and the other detainees are being hit with pepper spray. “They sprayed gas, they’ve hit us, and they’ve beat us,” he said, coughing.

When asked by the recipient of the phone call how the situation unfolded, the detainee said, “Because they want to test us for coronavirus, and they said they want to move us all. We said we’re afraid to be moved and don’t want to be tested there. They threw gas, and people are passing out.”

A second detainee called and said in English that Hodgson himself had attacked him. “The sheriff approached me and attacked me. He assaulted me. That motherfucker. And then people reacted to it. They made them hold me down, then they started spraying pepper. I got pepper in my mouth, I have asthma.”

He then said the sheriff and his deputies left. “I’m sure they’re coming back with the canines and force. This is not going to go down well. This guy is out of control.”

The second detainee then hands the phone to the first detainee, who repeated that the incident unfolded when the sheriff said the inmates needed to be tested for COVID-19. “We didn’t want to because we weren’t feeling anything. They said we were required to. Then they sprayed the gas,” he said in Spanish.

The call, lasting five minutes and 24 seconds, was mostly silent for the first half, with heavy breathing, and the second part had some lapses during which telephone issues were being addressed.

The phone calls closely mirror earlier reports that Hodgson wanted to test detainees who were allegedly exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus and the detainees resisted.

At a press conference on Saturday, Hodgson said he confronted a detainee who refused to put his phone away. “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.

“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 on Saturday. He said the detainees refused twice when their names were called.

Hodgson claims he and corrections officers were “rushed” by a group of 10 detainees after he asked one of them put down his phone and leave the unit to be tested for coronavirus.

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.

The sheriff’s office has confirmed that pepper spray was used to subdue the detainees. “Everyone from that unit is in isolation pending COVID testing and disciplinary action,” said jail spokesman Jonathan Darling.

The office declined to comment further on the detainees and referred all questions to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has jurisdiction over the detainees. That agency has declined to comment.

Hodgson said his office is reviewing video footage of the incident in preparation for filing charges against some of the detainees. A spokesman said the video footage will not be released until investigations of the incident are completed. There are currently three investigations pending, from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, Attorney General Maura Healey, and the state Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee. 

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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.

On Wednesday night, the Massachusetts congressional delegation, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus members sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, saying,”There are conflicting accounts about what occurred, and both parties have leveled serious accusations of assault. We write to you to seek clarity regarding the nature of this troubling incident.” They’re asking the latter office to also launch an investigation.

Jim Lyons, the chair of the state Republican Party, came to the defense of Hodgson, the chairman of the President Trump reelection campaign in Massachusetts, by attacking the investigations by Healey and the Senate committee. “It’s all too telling that when a group of inmates runs amok and causes $25,000 worth of damage, while putting everyone in that situation in danger, the radical Democrats’ reflexive impulse is to go after Sheriff Hodgson,” Lyons said.