DARTMOUTH — The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to immediately terminate its contract with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office and transfer the remaining detainees to another facility.
The county’s ICE facility had seven detainees as of May 13, according to BCSO spokesperson Jonathan Darling.
The county jail is also under federal investigation for complaints of abuse against immigrants, which factored into DHS’ decision, the Washington Post reported.
“Allow me to state one foundational principle: we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention,” said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a memo to ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson.
The decision comes after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office contacted Mayorkas last month to share report findings from a 2020 investigation and ask DHS to terminate its contract with BCSO, according to Healey’s office.
Her office found BCSO violated the civil rights of federal immigration detainees while responding to a disturbance last May, and cited “various institutional failures and poor decisions by BCSO leadership” that resulted in a use of force against the detainees “disproportionate to the security needs at that time.”
“We commend DHS for ending its partnership with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, which has a long history of abuse and neglect of immigration detainees,” Healey said in a statement. “Our extensive investigation and advocacy have made it clear that the Sheriff’s Office is not willing to take any steps to protect the rights and safety of detainees, and that ICE must sever ties with BCSO. This decision under the Biden Administration ensures that the civil rights of immigrants are protected and not violated in a callous disregard for human life and dignity.”
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Civil rights groups last spring also called for the release of ICE detainees in a federal lawsuit, at which time there were about 130 detainees in Bristol County.
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Rafael Pizarro, member of activist group Bristol County for Correctional Justice, said he was ecstatic to hear the news.
“Thank you to the brave detainees who stood up for themselves against the sheriff’s attacks more than once,” he said, citing the state attorney general’s report. “We’re happy to see that ICE concurs and is implementing the attorney general’s recommendations.”
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He said he was not too surprised by the news given the political support for terminating the contract. This is a very important step, he said, but more work remains.
“We also think the state should look at Sheriff [Thomas] Hodgson’s treatment of other people he holds in the non-ICE jails,” he said.
BCSO has about 600 inmates between its Dartmouth and New Bedford facilities, according to state data through May 12.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in a written statement that the end of the contract was “long overdue” and a “critical step in decoupling” state and federal law enforcement.
“It is particularly important because it strips Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who carried out the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda with zeal, of custodial responsibility for detained immigrants,” she said. “By shuttering detention facilities with a track record of problematic conditions and ending local collaboration with ICE, we can work together toward a fairer and more humane immigration system.”
The ACLU of Massachusetts sued BCSO last year for records relating to the May incident.
Hodgson issued a written statement in which he said “shame on” Mayorkas for “putting his left-wing political agenda above public safety.”
“This is nothing but a political hit job orchestrated by Sec. Mayorkas, the Biden administration and other anti-law enforcement groups to punish outspoken critics and advance their partisan agenda to score political points,” the sheriff wrote.
Mayorkas, in contrast, said the decision is an “important first step” in realizing the goal of making lasting improvements to the civil immigration detention system.
Hodgson scheduled a press conference for Friday morning to make an opening statement and take questions from the press.