Attorney general releases footage of 2020 uprising at ICE detention center

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The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office this week released video recordings made on May 1, 2020, when 25 detainees at the former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center run by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office at the department campus in North Dartmouth staged an uprising that left several people with minor injuries and eventually led to the center closing about a year later.

The AG’s office released the recordings in response to public records requests from media and other organizations, but it is not clear exactly what recordings were being requested by the different parties. The video that was ultimately released consists of recordings made on handheld cameras by sheriff’s staff members, not surveillance video taken from stationary cameras at the former C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center, part of the Jail and House of Correction complex on Faunce Corner Road.

Jonathan Darling, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said Thursday that his agency’s legal department — which was not running the process of releasing the video — has said the surveillance videos could not be released because they would reveal security camera positions.

In more than five-and-a-half hours of recordings cut into short segments, most 17 minutes long, the video — modified to obscure the faces of officers, detainees, even sheriff’s office dogs — provides glimpses of what happened inside and just outside the center after the initial disturbance erupted. Detainees had broken furniture, walls, bathroom sinks, tiles, and mirrors, then barricaded themselves inside by piling furniture against the doors.

The uprising was touched off late that Friday afternoon as then-Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson — who became actively engaged in U.S. border security during his 25-year administration and pushed for construction of the detention center — ordered 10 detainees to report to the main jail building to be tested for COVID-19. The detainees refused to leave. An immigration lawyer who had interviewed several of them said last fall that they were afraid of being taken into solitary confinement at the main building.

Their resistance led to struggles between several detainees and officers, according to a report on the incident released in December 2020 by the office of then-AG, now governor, Maura Healey. According to the report, officers used pepper spray on several detainees, then left as detainees tossed plastic chairs at them. Hodgson said he was hit with a chair and injured, although the report neither confirms nor denies his account.

Several video segments, shot through a window that shows the inside of the dormitory-style detention center, show detainees strolling about or sitting on their bunk beds. Officers on the other side of the glass can be heard commenting on what’s going on inside.

At one point, there’s an explosion — apparently a stun grenade going off — followed by a rush of activity: detainees running away from the direction of the explosion, officers in riot gear streaming in with dogs, carrying rubber bullet guns, taking detainees to the floor, handcuffing them behind their backs.

Other videos show detainees being taken out into the yard, lined up facing a wall on their knees as dogs are barking. One detainee lying on the ground outside, who seems to be having trouble breathing, is being tended to by a medical responder. In another video, a detainee in an office inside is being treated for a leg injury.

The images appear to support the account in the AG’s report, which says that the worst of the disturbance was over by the time about 20 sheriff’s officers burst into the unit. The report went on to criticize Hodgson for a “calculated — that is, planned and deliberate” use of force that was “disproportionate to the security needs at that time.”

These images made by sheriff’s office members do not clearly show the sort of brutality claimed in a lawsuit brought by 16 detainees last spring against Hodgson and his agency. Among other things, several plaintiffs in the suit claim they were pepper sprayed in the face and beaten as they were lying on the floor or in their bed handcuffed behind their backs.

Although the AG never brought civil or criminal charges against Hodgson or his department, the report accused the sheriff’s office of using excessive force, showing disregard for detainees’ safety and violating their civil rights. Months later, the Department of Homeland Security under newly-elected President Joe Biden, canceled its contract with the Sheriff’s Office to run the center, which was opened in April 2007 to accommodate 128 people in civil, not criminal detention, while their immigration cases were being resolved. The last inmates left the center in the late summer or fall of 2021, and since then the building has only been used for training.

Hodgson, a conservative Republican supporter of former President Donald Trump, claimed that the AG report and the decision to close the center were politically motivated. He has insisted since then that the video recordings would vindicate his argument that his officers took appropriate action.

He wondered aloud last fall why the video was not being released and why the state never brought charges against him or his officers.

Sheriff Paul Heroux, the Democrat who defeated Hodgson last year, said on Thursday that he and other staff members watched the videos this week. He said it appeared that correctional officers had done their jobs properly, but he questioned their supervisors’ decisions.

He wondered if the whole confrontation could have been avoided by having a nurse go to the detention center to administer COVID tests, rather than trying to get the detainees out of the center. He also questioned the use of dogs, whose barking was “adding to the chaos …That’s not helping the situation. All that does is add to the intimidation.”

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