A report from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey found that the civil rights of immigration detainees were violated in Bristol County jail. The report is the result of the investigation of an incident on May 1, 2020 where officers, including Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, used excessive force and “acted with deliberate indifference to a significant risk of serious harm to the health of several detainees.” These conclusions are disturbing but not entirely surprising given Sheriff Hodgson’s deep connections to anti-immigrant hate groups.
Hodgson has been called “America’s most anti-immigrant sheriff,” a mantle once held by Joe Arpaio. Hodgson sits on the National Board of Advisors for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) – an anti-immigrant hate group with deep connections to white nationalism and eugenics. Despite its xenophobia and racism, Hodgson has called FAIR “one of the greatest organizations.” Unsurprisingly, Hodgson has been a prominent voice for FAIR at their annual conferences, where he called for the arrest of elected officials who supported sanctuary cities in 2017.
In 2018 Hodgson presented Donald Trump with a plaque and announced with the National Sheriffs’ Association – where he is a prominent member – a crowdfunding effort to help pay for Trump’s border wall. Hodgson praised the wall effort with false and dangerous associations between migrants and crime. Then in 2019, he led a FAIR-organized event that ended with a photo opt with Trump. The Trump campaign turned around and used the photo with Hodgson in thousands of targeted dog-whistle Facebook ads, claiming his opponents would lead to “chaos and violence.”
“We need to turn this country around and put law and order back in place,” Hodgson said in 2017 when calling Bristol County jail inmates to be used to build Trump’s wall. The following year, Hodgson teamed up with another anti-immigrant hate group, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), to combat legislation that would treat undocumented immigrants fairly in Massachusetts.
Hodgson has also used the COVID-19 pandemic to demean immigrants further and spread xenophobic fear-mongering. In April 2020, Federal Judge William Young ordered the release of some immigration detainees due to an increased risk of harm from COVID. Hodgson then created a so-called “Prisoner Release Alert System” where he published the names and the alleged crimes of the released detainees. “Not only is this improper, but it’s unnecessary fear-mongering,” the lawyer for the detainees said of Hodgson’s actions.
It was in this escalating xenophobic context that the May 1 incident occurred. Ten immigration detainees in Hodgson’s jail were nonviolently protesting the lack of COVID-19 testing and forced isolation they had to undergo. The officers gave the detainees instructions and commands only in English. Then without giving a warning, the officers “executed a calculated use of force, which utilized a variety of weapons systems, including a flash bang grenade, pepper spray and pepper-ball, anti-riot shields, and canines.” This aggressive, extreme escalation was a violation of their “own policies and procedures.” The detainees said they were attacked despite “not resisting or fighting, but simply because they did not understand what was happening because they did not speak or understand English.”
The report found the officers “used an excessive amount of pepper spray and pepper-ball, including against detainees with serious pulmonary or respiratory conditions and detainees suspected of having COVID-19, which can cause serious respiratory symptoms.” Two of the detainees were sent to the hospital from the incident. Another had to be revived on the scene with chest compressions, but instead of sending this person to the hospital, they locked him in solitary confinement.
Recommendations from the report include:
- Ensuring the Bristol County is complying with language requirements and providing all information, including medical information, in a language the detainee understands.
- Implement robust training focused on “diversity, inclusion, and cultural humility and working with individuals with no or limited English language proficiency.”
- Retain and the external auditor to ensure compliance with “all relevant laws, policies, and procedures that relate to the use of force, special management units, and the provision of health care.”
The report details a horrific incident on top of a long history of the blatant xenophobia of Thomas Hodgson. However, it will be up to voters in Bristol County to reject “America’s most anti-immigrant sheriff” in 2022. Folks on the ground have been warning about Hodgson for years and have been working to hold him accountable. In his last election in 2016, Hodgson ran unopposed, but if the organizing in Maricopa County can tell us anything, it is that anti-immigrant, rights-violating Sheriff’s can be removed. An effort that would benefit the safety and welfare of ALL those who call Bristol County home.