by Jo Ellen Nott
On April 21, 2023, about 75-80 detainees staged a protest against their move inside Massachusetts’ Bristol County House of Correction. The move was to allow renovations to make their cells suicide resistant. Among their grievances was the high cost of items in the jail commissary, the sale of which is funding the renovations. Convenient for Sheriff Paul Heroux, the protest caused no injuries but enough damages to grab the attention of state lawmakers, who can throw more money his way for updates to the 40-year-old lockup.
Though the detainees were awaiting trial, Heroux said some face multiple murder charges and are more hardened than the lockup’s convicted prisoners, all of whom are serving sentences not exceeding two and a half years. The detainees began planning their protest the night before, when they learned they were being moved to cells with locks the following day. Heroux said that approximately half the cells in the 1,400-bed jail do not have locks because they lack toilets, so doors must remain opened to allow detainees bathroom access. The planned renovations to the facility include adding a toilet to every cell, along with a lock.
The stand-off began at 9 a.m, and by 11:30 a.m the detainees had written a list demands. Some Heroux called reasonable, some not. In addition to being charged high commissary prices to fund their own detention, their grievances included being forced to turn off their cellphones. Heroux answered them in writing, explaining that responding in person might agitate the protestors more. Four guards on duty inside the unit said the detainees threw the Sheriff’s responses out the window without reading them, but no video evidence of that was provided.
As backup arrived from five counties and the state Department of Corrections, the number of law enforcement officers quickly swelled to 130. The group studied video of the interior and inspected a vacant unit with the same configuration as the two occupied by the protestors. (The jail is over half-empty, with just 600 of its beds filled.)
The decision to go in was made after the detainees took over one unit’s control panel, which could have allowed them to escape or take the four guards on duty hostage, the Sheriff said. At that point the incident was just “seconds away” from becoming a hostage situation, Heroux added, but he credited some unnamed guards with good reflexes for preventing that; they hit a red kill button, shutting down access control. Without that, the detainees could have moved into the courtyard and out onto the roof, which would have led to a riot, Heroux said.
The protest caused damages estimated at $100,000 to $200,000, not including electrical and plumbing repairs. The GB unit suffered the most damage while the second GA unit sustained far less. The Sheriff’s Office said it had identified 17 detainees in the GB unit and three in the GA unit as ringleaders, who will face charges. As part of the investigation actual damages will be assessed, video will be reviewed, and interviews will be conducted before the case is given to the Bristol County District Attorney (DA). It is unknown if the DA will seek reparations.
The Sheriff said there is a plan to update all eleven units on the “correctional campus” at a cost of $500,000 each. But his office currently has only $1.5 million available in the fund from commissary proceeds, so financing updates with that revenue will take years. Heroux hopes the incident will speed updates to the jail, now that state lawmakers are aware of the need.
Sources: New Bedford Standard-Times, WXFT
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