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Bristol County Correctional Center officials retaliate after ICE detainees declare work strike



“…Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and about 15 officers entered the facility, carrying guns pointed at the detainees who sheltered under plastic tables…”

People detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Bristol County Correctional Center are striking, in protest of unsanitary and dangerous conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Ira Alkalay, a lawyer with clients inside the facility. Now, jail officials are retaliating.

This morning, one person detained by ICE in the facility observed, according to Alkalay, that “there were guards sort of amassing outside the door” and that all of the detainees were seated in their bunks, fearing violence from the correctional officers. 

Later in the day, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and about 15 officers entered the facility, carrying guns pointed at the detainees who sheltered under plastic tables, Alkalay told UpriseRI.

Jonathan Darling, spokesperson for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, told UpriseRI that Hodgson and Superintendent Steven Souza entered the unit “accompanied by about 15 correctional officers for security.” One officer “had a pepper ball gun,” Darling said, but he did not comment on whether guns were pointed at detainees. Darling said that Hodgson told the detainees he would review their “grievances” and “meet with them again this afternoon.”

Darling told UpriseRI that the work stoppages started last night, and that correctional officers are now doing the work that detainees did, “such as serving meals, doing laundry and cleaning tables, etc.” Darling said that during the “minor protest” in the ICE wing of the facility this morning, phone access was shut off, but has been restored.

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According to Alkalay, jail officials promised to improve the sanitary conditions in the facility last week. “What I’m told is little to nothing changed,” said Alkalay. “The detainees decided unanimously that to try to get attention to this, they would start a work strike because they do all the work in the facility.”

ICE detainees in Bristol County had already raised the alarm about conditions in the facility. Between March 18 and 24, people detained by ICE in the Bristol County Correctional Center published three letters that described conditions including overcrowding, a lack of sanitation, and panic. As of Monday, none of the 148 ICE detainees in Bristol County had been tested for COVID-19. Darling told UpriseRI that “Sanitary conditions always have and will continue to be at a very high level.”

On March 27, Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a lawsuit in federal court for the emergency release of all people detained by ICE in Bristol County. “Their confinement conditions and detention treatment have created a dangerous and hazardous situation that imminently threatens their lives,” the lawsuit says, “as well as the well-being of guards and others in the surrounding community, and the general public. Immediate relief is necessary before the coronavirus ignites the tinderbox that is BCHOC and irreversible damage is done.”

On Monday, United States District Court Judge William Young heard arguments on the lawsuit and encouraged ICE to stop transferring new detainees to the Bristol County Correctional Center, although he did not issue a formal court order. In the hearing, which was conducted by video conference, Young asked attorneys to provide a list of people currently detained by ICE at the facility, as well as any medical conditions that might make them especially vulnerable to the virus, WBUR reported

A second hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

This will be updated as the story progresses.

Julia Rock is a Providence-based journalist reporting on issues of equity and democracy in Rhode Island and Sara Van Horn is a student at Brown University and Metro Editor for the College Hill Independent.