Sheriff’s office violated visitation rules, state committee says

Dec 18, 2020

This article has been updated to include a response from Sheriff Hodgson on Dec. 21.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson illegally denied entry to a state senator at his facility following an incident at the ICE detention center in the Bristol County House of Correction in May, according to a new report from a state body.

The new report comes just days after an investigation from state Attorney General Maura Healey’s office found Hodgson violated the civil rights of federal ICE detainees during a May 1 altercation — findings that Hodgson disputes.

On May 2, State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz tried to enter the Faunce Corner Road facility to observe conditions there, according to the Dec. 18 report from the state’s Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight — but officials wouldn’t let her in.

The committee found that the sheriff’s office violated its own visitation policies as well as a state law granting certain government officials an absolute right to visit correctional institutions and jails without permission.

“Under Section 36 of Chapter 127 of the General Laws, a Senator may enter an institution, jail or house of correction without receiving prior approval,” the report noted. “The ability to visit correctional facilities unannounced...is an important tool for conducting oversight of Commonwealth correctional institutions.”

Hodgson said at a Dec. 16 press conference that the Jamaica Plain senator was not allowed entry into the facility because she “had no proof of who she was” and out of precaution for Covid-19 protocols barring nonessential visitors.

“She probably hoped that she was going to get herself in front of a camera to try to advance her pro-illegal agenda,” Hodgson claimed. “It’s a political investigation, is what it is.”

The committee’s investigation found that Senator Chang-Díaz had presented a valid Massachusetts driver’s license at the entrance, and that the officer on duty had confirmed her identity by way of a license check.

It also found that the sheriff’s right to limit visitation during the pandemic “simply does not grant [him] authority to dispense with the statutory power of a member of the legislature under Section 36,” noting that the law grants state lawmakers “an absolute privilege” to enter. 

On Dec. 21, Hodgson released a statement disputing the idea that the privilege is absolute.

“MGL Chapter 127, Section 37 specifically states that admission can be refused if it compromises the safety and security of the institution,” Hodgson noted, adding that heightened security was in place due to the pandemic as well as the incident that took place the previous evening. “If there’s an emergency or dangerous situation, [lawmakers] can be turned away” for safety reasons, he stated.

Hodgson also pointed out that Senator Chang-Díaz represents Boston, not Bristol County. “No other legislator, including any from Bristol County, felt the need or urgency to visit,” he noted.

In a joint statement, Senate President Karen Spilka and committee chair Senator John Keenan wrote, The Committee’s findings underscore the importance of unannounced visits as a crucial tool necessary for the oversight of correctional facilities.”

The report recommended that if the identity of a visiting lawmaker is in question, “It shall be the affirmative obligation of the facility to confirm the identity of the person in a timely manner by conducting a common internet search.”