Heroux rounding up state support for possible Ash Street closure

Jan 28, 2023

A little more than a week after announcing a $10 million plan to close New Bedford’s Ash Street jail and retrofit Dartmouth’s former immigration detention facility for inmate housing, Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux is hoping to refurbish a different existing building as another option.

The announcement came as Heroux gave local state representatives a tour of the county’s jails on Jan. 27 in order to get their support for his plan to consolidate operations to the Dartmouth campus.

“If they don’t support this, this doesn’t happen,” Heroux said.

To close the New Bedford facility, the sheriff’s office will have to build at least 100 individual cells for those inmates. According to Steve Souza, the superintendent of the jails, many of the Ash Street inmates need to be kept in single cells to separate rival gang members or others who might spark conflict.

Heroux said while the 135-year-old facility is “not the horror story” local activists described during the campaign, the nation’s oldest active jail has “outdated and inefficient conditions,” high operational expenses, and grants inmates less programming opportunities than those in Dartmouth.

According to Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Jonathan Darling, Ash Street inmates have access to 13 hours of work and educational opportunities a week. In Dartmouth, he said inmates have access to a combined 44 hours of programming on Mondays alone.

During the initial announcement, Heroux said he hoped to retrofit the former ICE detention building with 50 cells in each of the building’s two wings. The facility was closed by the federal government in May 2021 amid allegations that then-Sheriff Thomas Hodgson had violated detainees' civil rights during an altercation the previous year.

The price tag for potential work on the ICE building would be roughly $10 million.

While that idea is still on the table, Heroux on Friday pitched refurbishing a high-ceiling former gymnasium on the main campus. 

According to the sheriff, the 10,000 square-foot building would be remodeled to have two levels with 50 cells at each level. Heroux said this option would be “less expensive,” with an estimated price tag of $5 million to $7 million. 

And, unlike the former ICE facility, he said it would be in the campus’ main security perimeter.

Should the former gymnasium building be chosen, Heroux said he would like to convert the former ICE facility into a training center. Most training is done at the annex across the street from the main campus — a building the sheriff said costs $144,000 a year in rent.

The estimated cost of that refurbishment is “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Heroux said.  Work would be done in-house.

“That’s just sheetrock, two-by-fours and paint,” the sheriff said. “That’s not a big lift.”

For either option, Heroux said it will be at least three years before work can begin.

As the process moves forward, Heroux is requesting lawmakers fund a feasibility study, which is estimated to cost $200,000 to $300,000. This appropriation could be part of the upcoming state budget, the lawmakers said.

State Rep. Chris Hendricks (D-New Bedford) called the sheriff’s estimate “modest for a study” and something he would like to see the state move forward on.

"It's an interesting idea," he said.

State Rep. Carol Doherty (D-Taunton) agreed.

“It’s really worth the Legislature’s time to look at that and the sheriff’s idea that we might appropriate sufficient revenue to conduct a feasibility study, that’s a good place to start,” she said.

Dartmouth’s representative to Beacon Hill, Chris Markey, was absent from Friday’s tour, but Heroux said he “supports what we’re trying to do.”