Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson has cultivated a reputation as a no-nonsense law and order sheriff who believes in tough love to rehabilitate the inmates who pass through Bristol County Jail. He is the longest serving sheriff in one of the most liberal states in the country, and he is frequently criticized for subjecting inmates to what some argue are unnecessaryand over-the-top punishments.

He’s taken away television sets, reduced meal portions and limited recreation options. He has offered to ship inmates down to the Mexican border to help build the president’s wall and has tried to charge them $5 a day while they serve their time. Recently, he revoked face-to-face visitation rights for most of the prisoners under his watch to limit contraband smuggling, drawing the condemnation of multiple prisoners’ rights groups.

The sheriff is the subject of multiplelawsuits alleging that negligence by him and his officers have contributed to a higher suicide rate at his jails than any other county in the state, as reported by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Joe Mathieu sat down with WGBH Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed to talk about these lawsuits and why suicide rates in county jails are trending higher than in state prisons. Medwed explains that county jails are holding places for people awaiting trial or serving sentences of under two and half years. For many, it's their first time behind bars, and it can be a shocking transition.  

"A lot of people who are transitioning directly from the street to the facility are bringing with them a whole host of drug, alcohol addiction and mental health issues, Medwed said. "Second, also unlike state prisons, jails are operated by county officials, which means there are vast differences in how they operate, depending on the idiosyncrasies of the local sheriff." 

Medwed added that Hodgson’s tactics may make the transition to Bristol County Jail even more difficult.

"This law-and-order stance, according to some people, contributes to very harsh conditions in his prison including over-crowding," Medwed said. "But even more troubling are some allegations contained in four pending lawsuits against Bristol County claiming that jailers there frequently resort to solitary confinement to discipline inmates and impose social control."

Medwed said that solitary confinement is a tool that can be easily abused, disproportionately implemented and damaging to people with pre-existing mental illnesses.