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Prisoners Riot in Dartmouth Jail

On April 15, 2001, the scene at the Dartmouth House of Correction in Massachusetts could have been lifted straight from the pages of a medieval novel. Prisoners stormed the woodshop, armed themselves with boards, then set the shop afire. While one group laid siege to the courtyard another group scaled the building. From the roof they hurled rocks at the guards below.

One guard lost a futile attempt to barricade himself in a bathroom, and was taken hostage by a prisoner wielding a screwdriver. The guard, David Florent, was strapped to a bed for about 35 minutes as his captors demanded to speak to the media. In their universal language of protest, angry prisoners clogged their toilets and flooded their cells with water. Three guards were injured in the fray, none seriously.

In response to the uprising, about 50 guards and 10 police dogs confronted the prisoners on the courtyard. The protesting prisoners quickly gave way to the aggressive dogs and guards firing nonlethal beanbags into the crowd. Alas, the media never arrived.

But it doesn't take a newsflash to determine the reason for the riot. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson has been labled a tyrant ever since he took office. He was appointed sheriff in 1997 and reelected in 1998 with his gettough on prisoners platform. Hodgson reinstituted chain gangs and for months he confined prisoners to their cells 23 hours a day.

After the riot, Hodgson's first priority was to reaffirm his hardline stance. "This was not a negotiation," Hodgson said. "We trained very, very hard and we trained frequently for these situations ... I want to commend my staff." Hodgsen told Rob Brouliette, a business agent with the Massachusetts Officers Federated Union, that the prisoners used a ladder to get from the woodshop to the roof. "This was probably planned," concluded Brouliette.

Not everyone is impressed with Hodgson's approach. Shoddy conditions in the Dartmouth and Ash Street jails sparked a lawsuit in 1998, with the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services alleging "cruel and inhumane" conditions. One judge ordered that doublebunking be halted at the Ash Street jail and that triplebunking be halted at Dartmouth. In 1999 the suit was declared a classaction complaint by a Suffolk County superior court judge. Human rights activists claim that Hodgson's chain gangs are reminiscent of Southern slavery.

For three consecutive weeks Tony Braga was denied the opportunity to visit his brother, a prisoner at the jail. Braga says that visits are routinely cancelled. The excuse he often receives is that too many guards have called in sick. He also says that packages he leaves for his brother are never delivered.

Hodgson's nononsense tactics also include banning smoking, television, and weightlifting for prisoners. "This is a prison," he said. "This is not a place where you can find all the amenities of home." When asked if he thought his strong-arm tactics caused the riot Hodgson replied, "I think that what we are finding is because of my nononsense style, inmates are starting to rehabilitate themselves and realize they don't want to be here."

Guards from the Massachusetts Corrections Officers Federated Union also have lodged more than 50 complaints against Hodgson. Perhaps they are rehabilitating themselves as well.

Source: The Boston Globe.

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