Massachusetts Voters Oust “The Arpaio of the East”

Thomas Hodgson, the Bristol County sheriff who became notorious for dangerous and dehumanizing jail conditions on his watch, lost after years of local activists organizing against him.

Alex Burness   |    November 9, 2022

Hodgson is interviewed by an ICE public affairs spokesperson in 2020 (Bristol County sheriff’s office/Twitter)

Massachusetts reformers are jubilant following the upset defeat of a far-right sheriff known for ultra-punitive jails and often compared to the notorious Arizona strongman Joe Arpaio. 

Thomas Hodgson, the Republican sheriff in Bristol County, conceded defeat late on election night, ending a 25-year reign marked by extreme medical neglect, mounting jail suicides, and staunchly anti-immigrant policies.

“Today is a great day!” Kellie Pearson, the former partner of Michael Ray, who committed suicide in jail in Bristol County, texted Bolts on Wednesday. Bolts reported last week on Pearson’s allegations that Ray experienced extreme medical neglect. “People are becoming more educated about the state of our jails and they are ready for a change.”

Hodgson’s successor will be Democrat Paul Heroux, a former state representative and the mayor of Attleboro, Bristol County’s fourth-largest city. Heroux declared victory just after 1 a.m. local time Wednesday, after several hours of back-and-forth returns had produced no clear winner. 

“Whatever the voters decide in the end is ultimately what they want and we’ll obviously recognize that, understand it,” Hodgson told local reporters, prior to conceding the race. “There’s no other way to look at it. … This is a democracy and ultimately, in the end, the last thing we want to do—we’ve seen enough people questioning our democracy in this country.” (Hodgson has been an avid Donald Trump ally and, like Trump, has echoed baseless claims about widespread voter fraud.)

Heroux beat Hodgson in the cities of Dartmouth and New Bedford, where the county lockups are located. He performed particularly well in New Bedford, home of one of the oldest and most notorious jails in the nation. It has been the subject of lawsuits, protests and calls for a permanent shutdown by advocates. One formerly incarcerated man, Richard Saunders, told Bolts of pipes exploding with sewage in that jail, of rats and opossums that ran through it and of food so revolting that he and everyone he knew there became malnourished.

Hodgson routinely boasted about his deliberate efforts to make jail so unwelcoming that no one would want to come back. At various points over his 25 years in office, he reinstituted chain gangs and deprived people in his custody of any fresh fruits or vegetables. He also offered to send Bristol County incarcerees to help build Trump’s wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

His jails were host to a disproportionate share of the state’s suicides in the decade between 2006 and 2016, according to a report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Hodgson has often described these suicides as unavoidable tragedies that caught his staff off-guard—but lawsuits and Bolts interviews with people who knew the deceased in those cases suggest the sheriff’s office tends to ignore major warning signs, with fatal consequences.

The Heroux campaign was bolstered by a team of local activists that has spent years laying groundwork for this victory. One member of that team, writer David Ehrens, told Bolts Wednesday morning, “Hodgson’s defeat represents the tireless efforts of regular citizens, church groups, and community organizations across Bristol County who had simply had enough of Hodgson’s intentional and egregious cruelty.”

Perhaps no population felt Hodgson’s brutality more acutely than immigrants detained in his custody. The sheriff for years had contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deputize local officials to enforce federal immigration law and to house immigrants from the region and beyond in Bristol County. The federal government ended both of those contracts after Massachusetts Attorney General—and, as of Tuesday, Governor-Elect—Maura Healey found severe civil rights violations by the sheriff’s office, including overwhelming use of chemical agents and trained dogs on detainees.

Heroux describes a fundamentally different vision from Hodgson’s: “His attitude is to make life miserable for you,” he previously told Bolts. “My attitude is that we’re going to address your needs, your drug addiction, mental illness.” 

But Heroux took no conclusive stances on key policy areas that local activists have focused demands on. He’s said he’s open to cooperating with ICE in the future and that he isn’t sure whether he believes the jail in New Bedford should be shut down. 

He is not the only Democrat to win a critical Massachusetts sheriff election. In neighboring Barnstable County (Cape Cod), Democrat Donna Buckley won on Tuesday, replacing a Republican who held office for two decades. Barnstable County is home to the last remaining county-level ICE partnership in New England, and Buckley told Bolts she would end that arrangement on her first day in office.