365体育官网Nine undocumented immigrants without criminal records left the facility in Dartmouth this week. Approximately 130 remain incarcerated.
365体育官网DARTMOUTH – U.S. District Court Judge William Young released three undocumented immigrants without criminal records into house arrest on Friday in an effort to reduce the number of detainees at the Bristol County jail and slow the spread of the coronavirus inside the crowded facility.
Another six had been voluntarily released by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement within the past 24 hours.
365体育官网The county’s sheriff Thomas Hodgson said there are currently 48 detainees who eat and sleep in a single room at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center he manages in Dartmouth. Another 42 share a different room nearby. About 40 more are housed in the nearby Bristol County House of Correction.
365体育官网Civil rights groups who argued for the releases in a recently filed federal lawsuit described the detention center as “a tinderbox, that once sparked will engulf the facility.”We can deliver news just like this directly to your inbox. You can sign up for This Just In (a daily 7:30 p.m. newsletter with items we've posted that day), News Alerts (so you don't miss anything important) and more. It's customized to your preferences -- and it'll only take a few seconds.
The lawsuit claims that detainees cannot maintain six feet of social distance in dormitories where they sleep in closely packed bunk beds. Detainees also have limited access to soap and other sanitary products, according to the lawsuit.
A spokesman for the sheriff said detainees have “plenty of soap” and that staff have banned visitations and ramped up sanitation efforts at Bristol County’s jails, which include the House of Correction, the ICE detention center, a separate jail for women and a fourth jail in nearby New Bedford.
Tensions over safety at ICE’s detention center reached a breaking point on Tuesday after a group of ICE detainees ceased to wash laundry, serve food or clean the facility to protest overcrowding and other conditions they said were conducive to the possible spread of COVID-19.
365体育官网An activist group, Bristol County for Correctional Justice, reported that sheriff’s deputies responded by entering the detention center with guns drawn.
Jonathan Darling, a spokesman for the sheriff, disputed those claims, saying that only one deputy was armed with a “pepper ball gun” that they did not point at detainees. He said the conflict began when a detainee who did not agree with the work stoppage was assaulted by protestors.
“After we removed the victim from the unit for medical attention, the non-working detainees took all the tables and barricaded themselves behind them on one side of the room and refused to come out,” Darling said.
365体育官网The sheriff diffused the conflict on Tuesday, according to Darling, who said the detainees ended their work stoppage that night.
365体育官网(Editor's note: This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to The Enterprise.)
365体育官网But fears inside the jail have only escalated since the protest, according to activists who have spoken with detainees by phone.
365体育官网A nurse at the facility tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, sowing panic throughout the crowded dormitory. The nurse had developed a fever near the end of an overnight shift a week earlier that saw her working in the ICE detention center. Darling said she has not returned to work and that no detainee nor any other staff members have reported symptoms of COVID-19 to the sheriff.
365体育官网Though nine ICE detainees were released into house arrest by a judge on Friday in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, around 130 remain incarcerated at the Bristol County House of Correction and the nearby ICE detention facility, which share correctional and medical staff. The former facility also houses an additional 567 convicts and criminal defendants who are awaiting trial but have not posted bail.
Inmates incarcerated under Massachusetts criminal laws will soon have a separate process for requesting temporary release from custody during the pandemic, which the state’s Supreme Judicial Court is devising in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of criminal defense organizations.
365体育官网Detainees and inmates throughout Bristol County’s jail complex in Dartmouth live in close quarters, sharing many objects and surfaces. A survey of Massachusetts sheriffs conducted by the Supreme Judicial Court found that Bristol County maintained one of the most crowded jails in the state.
Sheriff Hodgson reported on Thursday that 64 percent of inmates and detainees sleep in bunk beds spaced three feet apart, though he said that, by sleeping head to toe, inmates complied with the six feet of social distance recommended by the CDC.
Only two of the state’s 12 county jail complexes, in Norfolk and Worcester counties, reported percentages of inmates sleeping within six feet of one another that were higher than 64 percent.
365体育官网Descriptions of conditions inside Bristol County’s jail complex are difficult to confirm. The sheriff is not allowing journalists or any visitors inside the facilities at this time, citing concerns about exposing the staff and inmates to the coronavirus.
Some inmate advocacy groups dispute descriptions of safety protocols within the complex provided by Hodgson and ICE, which they said include several disinfections of the facility each day and the screening of new inmates before being accepted into custody
“’Social distancing’ is a meaningless term” in the Bristol County House of Correction, Lawyers for Civil Rights wrote in their lawsuit.
Rafael Pizarro, an activist with Bristol County for Correctional Justice, said the sheriff “basically wants the inmates to suffer.”
“He glorifies in poor treatment,” Pizarro said.
Hodgson has fired back, doubting the credibility of reports from civil rights groups in several statements.
“Any headlines or press releases from political activist organizations claiming infections or outbreaks are completely false and reckless,” he said.
Darling, his spokesman, had similar criticisms of attorneys representing the facility’s ICE detainees.
365体育官网“There are lawyers who represent clients in our custody that are spreading lies and rumors around the community to advance their personal political agendas in a time of national crisis,” Darling said.
365体育官网More ICE detainees are expected to be released from the Dartmouth complex next week at the order of Judge Young, who asked lawyers on both side of the lawsuit to draft a list of 50 priority detainees to consider for release, with preference for nonviolent detainees with preexisting health conditions that could make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The nine detainees released from custody this week were selected from a group of eleven that had no criminal convictions or pending charges. During a hearing on Thursday, Young wondered why they’d been detained in the first place.
365体育官网“I confess I’m somewhat surprised about this, given the administration’s statement that ICE isn’t arresting such people,” he said.
“The numerical evidence seems incontrovertible, that the fewer people that are in the center, the greater the chance for health and safety for the people who remain there,” Young said.
Staff writer Ben Berke can be reached at email@example.com