Healey: Civil rights of ICE detainees violated

Report assesses violent confrontation at Bristol County Jail

ATTORNEY GENERAL Maura Healey issued a report on Tuesday concluding that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office violated the civil rights of immigrant detainees on May 1 when it engaged in an “unnecessary use of force” that left three of the detainees hospitalized and several others in solitary confinement when they should have received medical treatment.

The incident, involving immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Bristol County Jail, received national attention because Sheriff Thomas Hodgson himself confronted a group of detainees who were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms but refusing to be tested. Hodgson claimed the detainees barricaded themselves in the unit, “ripping out washing machines and pipes off the wall, causing $25,000 worth of damage.”

Healey’s civil rights division released a report Tuesday on a six-month investigation of the incident that relied on video footage, medical records, recorded calls, and interviews of detainees, correctional officers, and health staff at the jail. The report found the sheriff’s office used “excessive force” against the detainees and acted “with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious injury or harm to the detainees and their health.” The report also found the sheriff’s office violated its own rules covering the use of force, canines, and restraint equipment. The report said detainees were exposed to large amounts of pepper spray, which exacerbated medical issues of prisoners with serious pulmonary conditions, some of whom were later denied adequate medical care.

Hodgson issued a statement after the release of the report in which he called it Healey’s “latest politically motivated stunt” and charged that the report was “clearly written and released to advance her long-documented anti-ICE, pro-illegal immigrant political agenda. Why would the AG’s staff interview community advocates but not ask Sheriff Hodgson a single question?”

According to Healey’s report, there were 25 men in the unit of ICE detainees, all with civil immigration violations and no criminal convictions.  Advocates for the detainees, who were worried about the spread of COVID-19 in the cramped unit, had been pressing for the release of those being held and more testing. At the end of March, a federal judge began considering a suit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights, allowing for each detainee to be assessed individually for bail or supervised release. About 48 detainees had been let go as a result by May 1, earning the ire of Hodgson.

On May 1, according to the report, a nurse began screening detainees, asking them if they had any symptoms of COVID-19. The non-English-speaking detainees were confused without translation. Hodgson’s office told investigators they rely on other bilingual detainees to translate, a practice the attorney general’s report called “inappropriate,” because it requires getting medical consent for care. The nurse said 10 detainees reported symptoms consistent with the virus and that they should be quarantined in a different unit until they received a negative test result.

At around 4:30 p.m., according to the report, the detainees told jail officials that they were afraid to be transported because the unit to which they were being sent served the entire jail population, including individuals who had recently arrived from the community and could have the virus. The 10 detainees ultimately refused to leave their unit.

Hodgson decided to speak to the detainees in person, which the attorney general’s report described as a breach of protocol. According to the report, Hodgson told the detainees that if they didn’t comply they would be removed by force. He then had a corrections officer read the names of the 10 detainees out loud, so he could address each individually. Corrections officers and detainees described in interviews with investigators from the attorney general’s office how Hodgson became visibly agitated when some of the non-English speakers asked for clarification and tried to express their worries.

What happened next is still unclear. According to the attorney general’s report, one detainee left the area to call his attorney in a phone kiosk at the end of the room, and Hodgson approached him and told him to hang up. The detainee alleges Hodgson grabbed the phone out of his hand, shoved him against the kiosk, and threatened him close to his face. CommonWealth first reported the incident on May 1 and described the phone call that spurred the escalation.

Hodgson said he merely told the detainee to get off his phone, and the detainee was pretending to be assaulted. One of Hodgson’s officers told the attorney general’s investigators that he approached the kiosk himself and eventually ended up pinning the detainee against the wall because he wasn’t complying. Several officers claimed in their incident reports that Hodgson never touched the man, but later admitted in interviews with the attorney general’s office that they weren’t physically present in the room. Video surveillance shows a second kiosk blocking the one in question.

Whatever happened spurred a rapid chain of events. One officer decided to disperse 10 rounds of pepper spray in less than a minute. The pepper spray affected those detainees who were involved in the melee and those who were bystanders. The pepper spray prompted many of the detainees to conclude some form of gas was being pumped into the unit through the ventilation system, with many covering their faces with shirts or falling over from coughing and exposure as personnel left the room, according to the report.

Hodgson claims he was struck by a chair and bruised as he was exiting, but video did not show that, according to the attorney general’s report. Video did show detainees throwing chairs at other officers. A handful of detainees began breaking mirrors, barricading doors with furniture, and breaking appliances. Things settled down after a few minutes, and over the next hour the sheriff’s response team and K9 division met outside formulating a plan.

Several detainees inside the unit made calls, including one who told his wife that he was afraid for his life and another with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, who told an advocate that he could not breathe and needed medical help, according to the report.

Over the next hour, Hodgson and his response team didn’t communicate with the two ICE officers overseeing the unit in what is called “the bubble room,” who would have been able to tell them that the situation was much calmer inside the unit and didn’t warrant the use of force, according to the attorney general’s report. Instead, jail Superintendent Steven Souza told the response team that detainees were rioting and preparing make-shift weapons. A sweep of the unit later found no weapons, while video surveillance showed a few detainees passing around one metal pipe briefly.

At 7:15 p.m., according to the report, officers in gas masks went in with a flash bang grenade, more pepper ball launchers, shotguns with beanbag rounds, and two battering rams. K9 units were also brought in, and most of the dogs did not have muzzles.

A squad leader yelled, “Get on the ground!” but threw the flash bang without waiting to see if the detainees would follow his order, according to video surveillance. The sound sent most of the detainees running to the other side of the room before they began complying. At least 30 rounds of pepper-ball were fired at several detainees, even after most were restrained.

Healey’s office deduced the use of force violated “at least some of the detainees’ rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.”

During interviews, one detainee said he was already in flexi-cuffs when a corrections officer stepped on or kneeled on his neck. Another detainee remained unconscious on his back for several minutes before officers began to address the “gurgling noise” coming out of his mouth in small gasps, and had to eventually administer chest compressions to revive the man. He was assessed by a staff nurse in the parking lot and sent to solitary confinement instead of the hospital.

“At no point was G.L. [the initials of the detainee] taken to a hospital or evaluated by a medical doctor, notwithstanding his apparent cardiac arrest,” said the Healey report, calling the situation “most shocking.” He was also never assessed for potential injuries to his ribs or chest from the administration of chest compressions. One officer told Healey’s office that he thought the man was “faking it.”

Another man in obvious respiratory distress was dragged to his knees as an unmuzzled dog barked near his face as he struggled to breathe. He eventually fell over and was transported to an area hospital after his oxygen saturation was determined to be critically low, and he drifted in and out of consciousness. A similar situation happened with yet another detainee who was taken away in an ambulance.

Officers removed detainees’ masks and gloves during a pat search before putting them all in solitary confinement, disregarding the fact that 10 detainees had previously exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.

 Of the 22 men put into solitary confinement, three were stripped of their clothes and put in cells as a part of an unsupported or documented mental health watch and given suicide blankets instead, something Haley’s office found to be unwarranted and a violation of segregation rules.

Healey’s office found an email between the lead county investigator and Souza that mentions meetings with staff members who had filed incident reports on May 1 to see if there was “anything else they might remember.” Addendums were later added to their accounts, potentially as a direct result of those meetings, Healey said.

When comparing medical reports and video surveillance on the incident, the AG’s office found that detainees’ reported injuries did not match up with medical reporting or weren’t captured at all, and that most detainees weren’t treated.

The sheriff’s office fulfilled most of Healey’s requests during the investigation, but did not provide information on its federal agreement with ICE. It also didn’t release previous investigations or disciplinary files for the officers who responded, because the office said no disciplinary action had been taken against these officers. Hodgson declined to hand over his cell phone video footage.

Several legislators have reacted to the results of the investigation. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey released a joint statement agreeing with Healey over the recommendation that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office not be engaged in immigrant detention. They’re also calling on the office of the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General and the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to release their federal investigations.

“The questions all-too-often raised about Sheriff Hodgson’s judgement and temperament are clearly confirmed,” said Bourne Congressman Bill Keating, who represents the North Dartmouth area. ‘”By physically engaging a non-criminal immigrant detainee personally and launching a “paramilitary-style” force inside the prison to collectively punish immigration detainees under his care, Sheriff Hodgson violated their civil rights,”‘ he said. He said ending its agreement with BCSO is the first step the federal government could take in accountability for the incident.