A federal judge ruled Thursday that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, popularly known as ICE, “likely” violated the constitutional rights of detainees, in a case carefully watched by immigration rights advocates.

The advocates contended that the Sheriff has shown little concern for the health of detainees as the pandemic has raced through jails and prison facilities across the country, and the argument seemed to resonate with U.S. District Court Judge William Young.

Young, a Reagan appointee, found that Hodgson and ICE demonstrated deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of Bristol County House of Correction detainees being exposed to COVID-19 in the immigration unit.

The judge also ordered an immediate halt to all ICE detainee transfers to the North Dartmouth facility and the testing of all 82 individuals in ICE custody, as well as staff working there.

“This is a major victory because we all know based on CDC, medical and public health guidance, that testing is the first step in making sure that we can avoid Covid-19 infection, illness and death," said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers Committee, which brought the lawsuit.

Espinoza-Madrigal emphasized that COVID-19 testing is a critical part of keeping the detainees safe.

"For far too long, Bristol County has been reluctant to do just that. And this order mandating the testing of all 82 detainees goes a long way in addressing it.”

Sheriff Hodgson in a statement Thursday reacted angrily to the decision.

"The judge overlooked the fact that every employee is temperature screened and questioned every day before beginning work and that any one reporting COVID-like symptoms are isolated, tested and not allowed to return to work until cleared by a physician," he said. "Additionally, the decision also ignores the fact that the correctional staff sanitizes the facility three times a day and scrupulously enforces CDC recommended social distancing guidelines for prisoner sleeping, eating and recreating.

"As a result of this meticulous attention to the guidelines, since the pandemic began in early March, only one ICE detainee has, just two days ago, tested positive for the virus and continues to be asymptomatic in medical isolation."

The legal development came nearly a week after a violent altercation at Bristol between detainees and staff. Sheriff Hodgson alleged that the incident was precipitated when immigrant detainees “refused to obey an order to be transferred to the jail’s medical facility” to be tested for COVID-19.

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson oversees Bristol House of Corrections
Phillip Martin, WGBH News

The sheriff’s account was disputed by attorneys representing ICE detainees. Espinoza-Madrigal said the men declined to go to the medical facility because they feared for their safety. He said detainees have expressed grave concern about being taken to an area of the facility that had been deemed unsafe.

Fifty ICE detainees have been released from Bristol's immigraiton unit following a court order that found ICE and the House of Corrections failed to conduct comprehensive testing or contact tracing.

Judge Young determined that inmates at the facility were likely exposed to substantial risk of serious harm posed by COVID-19 in his ruling.

Sheriff Hodgson, protesting the releases, blamed “pro-illegal people constantly spewing out lies” and “judges letting these people out into the community.”
Hodgson lashed out at Judge Young in particular.

“Bristol County and ICE strongly believe that this judge’s order has far exceeded his authority and that his order directing staff to undergo invasive and unnecessary testing in order to keep their jobs is unconstitutional and plainly not right.”

The Lawyers Committee is petitioning for additional ICE detainee releases through a class action lawsuit , Savino v. Souza .

“The reason why we filed this lawsuit was specifically to ensure the safety of the immigrant population who cannot be kept safe in the conditions that exist at Bristol County," Espinoza-Madrigal said. "We know that at least six officials from the facility have tested positive for Covid-19. The conditions at Bristol County are a tinderbox waiting to be lit with COVID-19.”

Sheriff Hodgson said he has asked the U.S. Justice Department to seek a stay of Judge Young’s order and appeal the decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.