Heroux announces plan to close Ash Street jail, transfer inmates to former ICE facility

Jan 18, 2023

Nearly two years after its closure by the federal government, the former immigration detention facility at the Bristol County House of Correction could house inmates again in the coming years.

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, Sheriff Paul Heroux announced preliminary plans to close New Bedford’s Ash Street jail and move all operations to his department's main campus in Dartmouth.

The sheriff said the move to the Dartmouth facility won’t involve layoffs and would save the department money by making operations “more efficient.”

“We need more people on this campus as it is,“ he said at a press conference.

The sheriff’s plan includes working with the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance to build 120 single cells in the former ICE facility and transferring the approximately 96 inmates occupying Ash Street — the commonwealth’s oldest active jail — to the retrofitted Dartmouth building. The estimated cost for the work is $10 million.

Heroux, who was non-committal about the closing of the 135-year-old New Bedford jail while on the campaign trail, said the idea came about after a conversation with then-Sheriff Thomas Hodgson during the transition.

According to the new sheriff, Hodgson told Heroux that there was a rumor that Heroux would close the Ash Street jail and cautioned him that it was not feasible since the New Bedford facility contained single cells while the former ICE building was an open dormitory.

“So I thought, let’s retrofit [the former ICE] building,” Heroux said. “It’s an idea.”

The ICE facility was closed in May 2021 by the Department of Homeland Security because of “ample evidence that the Detention Center’s treatment of detained individuals and the conditions of detention are unacceptable,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at the time.

The closure came more than a year after an altercation that left three detainees in the hospital — an incident then-Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said had violated the detainees' civil rights. Since 2021, the facility has remained empty — with one wing used for training exercises for correctional officers.

Having operations consolidated into the building, Heroux said, would be a great benefit to the taxpayer because the former ICE facility is newer and smaller. Additionally, he said it would greatly save on utility costs.

The sheriff’s office also argues that the move would benefit inmates. According to a flier from the department, the “modern, bright facility helps change the culture of helplessness that inmates can feel.” 

As for what would happen to Ash Street, Heroux said the state can potentially sell the property to a developer for preservation purposes.

Should plans move forward, Heroux estimates $10 million project would take a minimum of three years before any ground breaking. As this plan consists of retrofitting an existing building, Heroux said this would bypass the state’s current moratorium on new prison construction.

Still, the project would require approval from the state’s Department of Corrections and funding from the legislature.

To that effect, Heroux said he plans on having Beacon Hill lawmakers tour Ash Street and the former ICE facility on Jan. 27 to make the pitch to them to secure the funding. An invitation has also been sent to Governor Healey.

“It’s not a small price tag,” the sheriff said. “I can’t do this alone.”