UPDATE: Incident ‘seconds’ away from hostage situation, sheriff says

Apr 21, 2023

The tense situation at the Bristol County House of Corrections Friday, April 21 came within seconds of becoming a hostage situation, Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux said Monday, April 24.

He credited the quick thinking of correctional officers who hastily removed themselves from housing units where inmates were destroying items and creating makeshift weapons. “They were seconds away from being locked in there,’’ he said. 

Inmates were upset about plans to move to a different housing unit within the facility, Heroux said. This was being done in part to perform maintenance that would reduce the risk of suicide, Heroux said, such as creating beds with fewer “choke points.’’ 

At 9 a.m, about two hours after inmates were told they had to move, inmates became “agitated’’ and refused to be relocated.

Shortly after, inmates in an adjoining unit also became angry, Heroux said, and caused some damage, although less than in the first unit. About 70 inmates were housed in the second unit. 

Heroux said that of the approximately 75 inmates on the first unit, about 17 “ringleaders’’ led the turmoil. The group inside the unit included men awaiting trial for murder. “This was a tough group,’’ he said.

The angry inmates ripped off ceiling cameras, broke windows and fans and began breaking beds apart, Heroux said. By doing this damage, he said, inmates could potentially create weapons out of items such as the grills around the fans, bed frames and “anything they could get their hands on.’’

The sheriff showed images of some of these potential weapons, including a door knob wrapped in a sock, broom handles and steel sections of bed frames that had been torn apart.

Heroux decided to call in reinforcements from other sheriff’s office and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and wait it out for a while. Throughout the day, officials attempted to talk with the inmates, but had no success. “You can’t reason with unreasonable people,’’ he said. “They were so far removed from being reasonable.’’

At one point, inmates created a list of demands, some of which _ wanting expanded programming, for example _ Heroux said he was already committed to doing. The inmates ripped up his response, he said.

After a few hours, when he described the situation as having reached “the point of no return,’’ the decision was made for the officers to go in, using flash bangs, which make a loud, distracting noise, and pepper spray. The inmates, seeing well over 100 officers on the scene, quickly complied, Heroux said, with no injuries to staff and inmates.

They were handcuffed and removed from the unit one by one, Heroux said. 

He credited the large presence of security with being able to quell the situation safely. If he had relied strictly on the officers at the facility, the situation could have been handled, he said, but “someone was going to get hurt.’’

He chose not to use dogs, in part because their incessant barking can make communication among officers difficult. Also, he said, the dogs would “only escalate the situation.’’ 

Dogs would also create “an optic that is terrible. I didn’t want them to be part of the image of the day ’’

He said he continually reminded those responding that “the public is watching.’’

Heroux estimated the damage at $100,000 to $200,000. A review is underway to determine what charges will be filed. 

Clean-up may be done in-house, although Heroux said a final determination will depend on the costs of a clean-up company vs. the overtime needed for internal staff to complete the job.

In the end, 17 inmates described as “ring leaders’’ were moved out of the Bristol County correctional system. The other inmates were moved either to the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford or to other locations within the Dartmouth facility.

Although the situation was “destructive,’’ it was not violent, which is why he rejects the term “riot.’’

He said he hopes the situation makes the state more aware of the need for funding to upgrade the facility, including placing locks on all cell doors, which is not how the building was designed. Although the department could fund these changes, that would take more time, he said, while state funding could make this happen more quickly.

When doors in the Dartmouth facility have locks, all inmates at the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford could be moved there, and the aging facility could be closed. This would allow for increased programming, he said, which he said was one of the issues he campaigned on.

He said he reached out by text to Gov. Maura Healey to request the funding. 

Meanwhile, he said, work on suicide mitigation will continue. He has described that work as a top priority and said Friday’s incident did not change that.