Massachusetts Attorney General wants investigation into Bristol County jails

Jun 21, 2018

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is asking for the state to investigate the Bristol County House of Correction amid concerns about high suicide rates and the treatment of inmates with mental illness.

In a letter to Executive Office of Public Safety and Security Secretary Daniel Bennett, Healey asked the department to conduct a thorough investigation along with the Department of Correction into health and safety conditions at jails run by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office.

Healey said recent lawsuits against the sheriff’s office have raised serious concerns about the conditions of confinement at Bristol County jails, and she said the suicide rate in Bristol County jails is a problem. Healy said from 2006 to 2016, a quarter of all jail suicides occurred at Bristol County prisons. The prisons housed only 13 percent of the state's county jail inmates.

"Suicide is a tragic and serious problem at many Massachusetts prisons and jails," Healey said in the letter. "However, based on the available public data, Bristol County appears to be an outlier."

In a statement, Department of Correction spokesperson Jason Dobson said the department will cooperate with any investigation conducted by any other law enforcement agency. He also said the department conducts routine audits of county correctional facilities, and all deaths at the facilities are investigated by local district attorney’s offices.

The letter comes after lawsuits were filed alleging mistreatment of mentally ill inmates and the absence of procedures put in place to reduce suicides.

On January 9, a lawsuit alleging poor treatment of prisoners with mental illnesses was filed against Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson by three inmates.

The inmates allege policies and procedures in dealing with inmates with mental illness, particularly how they are housed, violates federal and state protections and disability laws. Clinical research quoted in the lawsuit states “persons living under segregation conditions, such as those at [the House of Correction], suffer serious psychological harm.”

Each of the three plaintiffs allege they were housed in tiny, segregated units for extended periods of time despite serious mental health issues and documented past instances of illness. The lawsuit also alleges inmates in segregation face poor conditions, including small units, limited time outside of the segregation cells, denial of social, recreational, educational, and rehabilitation programs, and a filthy and noisy environment.

In March, Barbara A. Kice filed a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging the sheriff’s office did not follow its procedures regarding inmates designated to be at risk for suicide after Kice’s son, Brandon St. Pierre, committed suicide at the Dartmouth jail in 2015.

In her lawsuit, Kice alleges during a May 5 competency hearing St. Pierre was determined to be a suicide risk by a doctor and an Attleboro District Court judge. St. Pierre was allegedly housed alone in a segregated cell and only checked on every 30 minutes. On May 6, additional paperwork was allegedly sent to the sheriff’s office recommending St. Pierre’s transfer to another jail, but St. Pierre died later the same day.

Before the wrongful death lawsuit was filed, the sheriff’s office released a report in February outlining changes it made after studying seven suicides from May 2015 to June 2017. The changes included revisions to the office’s segregation policies and better training on identifying illnesses and suicide risks.

Hodgson will hold a press conference to address the letter today at 3 p.m. In a release from his office announcing the press conference, spokesperson Jonathan Darling said Hodgson intends to ask for a public apology from Healey for negatively portraying the staff of the jail.

The Bristol County House of Correction and the sheriff’s office headquarters is located at 400 Faunce Corner Road in Dartmouth. The sheriff’s office also operates the Ash Street Jail, located in New Bedford.