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Judge Finds Unconstitutional Conditions at Massachusetts Jail, 11 Years After Suit is Filed

On September 24, 2009, Suffolk Superior Court Judge John C. Cratsley held in a class-action lawsuit that Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson in Bristol County, Massachusetts was housing prisoners under cruel and unusual conditions.

Originally filed in 1998, the suit alleged that Hodgson was improperly triple-bunking prisoners at the Ash Street Jail, a pre-Civil War-era facility. The lawsuit also claimed that prisoners were being forced to sleep on the floor in “boats” – portable bunks – and in common areas. The lawsuit was amended in 2004 to add a claim concerning Hodgson’s practice of “dry-celling” prisoners at the Dartmouth House of Correction. “Dry-celled” prisoners did not have access to a toilet.

The plaintiffs in the case had moved for summary judgment, arguing that no genuine issues of material fact were in dispute given Hodgson’s admission to the practices at the jails.

Judge Cratsley, however, granted the plaintiffs’ motion only in part. “[T]here is no dispute,” the court wrote, “that the defendant (l) engaged in the practice of placing pretrial detainees on the floor and in porta-bunks, and (2) permitted over-crowding, as well as double bunking at the Ash Street Jail, to exist for pretrial detainees.” There was also “no dispute that these practices constituted punishment as a matter of law.”

In light of these findings, Judge Cratsley held “that the defendant is liable in his official capacity for violating the plain-tiffs’ rights under the Due Process Clause.”

The court declined to grant summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ dry-celling claim, holding that the record did “not in-clude any evidence that the defendant held pretrial detainees in dry cells.” Hodgson’s defense of qualified immunity was denied because the plaintiffs’ claims were brought against him in his official capacity.

Hodgson said he was disappointed with the court’s decision. “When I was elected I made it clear we would make the facilities the top in the nation,” he stated. “People who visit are amazed at how well the jail is run.”

Greta Janusz, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, had a different perspective. Janusz said Hodgson had “a very cavalier attitude over the 11 years of the lawsuit,” and noted “he has an attitude that he’s above the law.”

Hodgson tried to compare the double- and triple-bunking of prisoners to double-bunking that often occurs at colleges. How-ever, Janusz pointed out that “inmates can’t just walk to the bathroom, and if they can’t get a guard to unlock the door during the course of the day, then there’s going to be unsanitary conditions.”

The unconstitutional practices at the jail have since been remedied as a result of the class-action lawsuit. A damages determination will be made by the court at a later date. See: Kelly v. Hodgson, Suffolk Superior Court (MA), Case No. 1998-03083.

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Related legal case

Kelly v. Hodgson