MassLive
Should lawmakers get to visit jails during coronavirus pandemic? Bristol County sheriff, lawmakers at odds over visitation restrictions

By Steph Solis | May 05, 2020

After talking it over with family members, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz drove to the Bristol County House of Correction Saturday morning for an unannounced visit.

An incident involving immigrant detainees and correction officers - including the sheriff - made national headlines the night prior. She wanted to speak directly with detainees and officers about what happened.

Chang-Diaz never entered the facility. The Boston Democrat presented her state ID and referenced the statute that allows her to make such visits but was told that the visitations were suspended to non-essential people due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, reporters were allowed in for a news conference during which they were shown damage that Hodgson said was caused by the detainees.

Chang-Diaz’s denied entry raised questions for lawmakers about whether emergency policies implemented during a public health crisis should override state statute that is designed to allow independent oversight of state and county correctional facilities.

“I was very surprised, honestly. The individual that I was interfacing with, I’m sure he was following orders, but he made it clear that he had spoken to the general counsel,” Chang-Diaz said. “I was very surprised that they were choosing not to acknowledge or heed the law in this case.”

Visitors must typically submit a request form stating their name, residence and other personal details before being admitted to a jail or prison in Massachusetts. Under state law, a number of state officials are allowed to make unannounced visits, bypassing the approval process. Those include the governor, a member of the governor’s counsel, the attorney general, a district attorney, a member of the parole board and state legislators, among others.

The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, like county jails and state prisons across Massachusetts, suspended visitations in March around the same time Gov. Charlie Baker issued a series of executive orders sending people home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The executive orders and the correctional policies do not elaborate on what the state of emergency means for unannounced visits allowed under state law.

The Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight Committee is looking into the May 1 incident and Chang-Diaz’s denied access, according to a joint statement from Senate President Karen Spilka and Sen. John F. Keenan, chair of the committee.

“The Massachusetts State Senate is extremely concerned about a recent situation at the Bristol County House of Correction involving federal detainees," the statement reads.

Other lawmakers who perform unannounced visits at correctional facilities said they believe the state statute remains in effect even during a pandemic.

“I just think that’s a pretty well-grounded statute that even sheriffs or prison superintendents that I’ve had disagreements with have always honored,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “I just think it’s a real shock.”

The incident Chang-Diaz sought to ask detainees and correction officers about made headlines Friday night with conflicting stories circulating. Hodgson said he and his officers were “violently” rushed and that the detainees caused $25,000 worth of damage to the unit. Detainees said they were attacked by Hodgson and pepper sprayed.

Hodgson said the detainees refused to be tested for COVID-19 and said one detainee who was on the phone as the incident unfolded lied about being attacked, calling him a “con man.” The Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken said detainees wanted to be tested within their unit because they feared being transferred to be tested elsewhere would expose them to COVID-19 and land them in solitary confinement.

Jonathan Darling, the sheriff’s spokesman, said Monday that the policy suspending visitations is working. He said the facility tested 15 prisoners and found no positive cases.

“When visitation resumes, hopefully in the coming weeks but dependent on guidance from Gov. Baker’s office and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Public Health], non-essential people will once again be allowed in the facility,” spokesman Jonathan Darling wrote in an email.

On Monday afternoon, Lawyers for Civil Rights attorney Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal said an immigrant detainee tested positive for COVID-19. When asked about the positive case, Darling referred a reporter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment.

An agency spokesman declined to comment, instead sharing a list of confirmed cases that was last updated in late April. Bristol County was not on the list of facilities with COVID-19 cases.

The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office is the subject of a class-action lawsuit, filed by detainees represented by Espinoza-Madrigal, calling for the release of detainees who have pre-existing medical conditions, as well as those who pose little danger to the community.

Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a motion on Monday requesting that the sheriff testify about what happened Friday night, in addition to testimony he was already scheduled to deliver. U.S. District Court Judge William Young denied the motion, saying Hodgson could be deposed for up to three hours to discuss testing, quarantine and other details about the conditions detainees face.

“The present conditions under which any of the detainees are being held is properly discoverable. The circumstances of Friday’s disruption is not,” Young wrote.

Chang-Diaz is the only lawmaker who tried to visit the Bristol County facility, but other state legislators have requested formal inquiries into the May 1 incident and the conditions at the jail.

Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb sent a letter to Baker, Attorney General Maura Healy and Security Secretary Thomas Turco requesting surveillance footage and an investigation into the treatment of detainees at the Bristol County facility. Several congressional members have also called for an investigation.

Chang-Diaz stressed that she wanted to hear from both detainees and correction officers about the Friday night incident. She said her primary concern is the wellbeing of everyone in the facility, but that her inability to visit on Saturday raises questions for her and her colleagues.

“We need to make sure that the law is respected and carried out,” she said. “There have been a lot of conversations that need to transpire. I’ve already heard a lot of concerns from colleagues, their concerns of the flouting of this law. These are conversations that are going to continue over the next several days.”

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