America's Bluest State Protecting Accused Sheriffs as Body Count Rises?

Years of allegations of neglect, abuse and corruption as well as a growing death toll in a liberal stronghold seem like no threat to these lawmen. 

I know some inmates at a county jail who would gladly wear pink underwear if it meant that they'd start to get the medicine that they need to stave off life-threatening medical problems like seizures or to begin receiving mental health treatment that didn't result in them being locked up alone, naked or nearly naked, in tiny, cold and filthy cells with neither a mattress nor a pillow while being told to defecate in a hole in the floor, as is allegedly standard practice in the "Q5" emergency mental health intervention unit, i.e. “suicide watch,” at the jail where they are incarcerated. Likewise, many would happily live in tents if they could avoid suddenly being taken off of methadone, as is also reported to be normal procedure there. 

And these inmates aren't in Arizona or Texas or Florida. No, they're at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility (PCCF) in Massachusetts, which is run by Sheriff Joseph McDonald Jr. and which has been featured in reports on torture to the United Nations. 

On a related note, the "VACANCY" sign which illuminated the Maricopa County, Arizona jail during the tenure of Sheriff Joe Arpaio (himself a Massachusetts native) made national news. But when Thomas Hodgson, the sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts, took things a step further by actually charging inmates a daily fee, comparatively few took notice. 

And, unlike Arpaio, who afterwards lost a reelection bid in deep-red Arizona, Hodgson and McDonald continue to win additional terms as Republicans in a state dominated by Democrats.

In comparison, behind the continued success of McDonald and Hodgson in Massachusetts there appear to be ample supplies of 2 things: complacency and corruption. 

Little else could explain how despite incidents which probably should have sent all three heading for the hills, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) and the Massachusetts state Department of Corrections (DOC) all continue to do business with McDonald's department while the local Department of Public Health (DPH), Department of Mental Health (DMH) and Board of Registration in Medicine all abdicate their oversight responsibilities, even as bodies pile up. 

For starters, in 2015 WCVB Channel 5 Boston uncovered records indicating that a supervisor at PCCF was running a marriage fraud scam. However, more than two years later, rather than make arrests and terminate its contract with McDonald, ICE actually increased the number of detainees it pays PCCF to hold on its behalf.  

Then, in February of 2017, a U.S. Marshals detainee committed suicide within 48 hours of arriving at PCCF and a state DOC inmate also held there nearly took his own life. Both incidents occurred within a week of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Acting Director John Harlow of the U.S. Marshals receiving an open letter of mine from the Huffington Post and Shadowproof, which explicitly warned them about the punitive and potentially deadly approach taken towards mental health by McDonald's administration. Neither responded to that letter though, nor to a follow-up sent after those incidents and both continue to contract with PCCF to hold inmates from outside of Plymouth County.

And such deaths are not isolated incidents at PCCF, nor at Hodgson’s Bristol County Jail and House of Correction.

Yet, despite numerous direct appeals and the fact that it licenses the medical doctors who practice there, the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine has done nothing to protect the patients at PCCF.  State law allows the Board to discipline any licensee whose conduct would undermine the public’s confidence in the practice of medicine. But despite an allegedly long history of doing great harm and inducing great suffering by suddenly taking new arrivals off substitution therapies like methadone and properly prescribed psychiatric medications, including benzodiazepines, without even evaluating them, the Board does nothing.

Similarly, when Lorne Gilsig of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health received a dozen or so complaints about the abuse of mentally ill patients in PCCF’s suicide watch unit, the only discernible action taken was to refuse to recognize DMH’s jurisdiction over PCCF. Instead, Gilsig wrongly asserted that PCCF is a state DOC facility and said to contact the Department of Corrections.

However, PCCF is not a state DOC facility (though the Massachusetts DOC does contract with it). Further, the mental health practitioners at PCCF appear to be private contractors rather than government employees, a hiring practice which would limit the sheriff’s liability, but which would also put the therapists even more clearly under DMH’s purview. Multiple attempts to explain to Gilsig only resulted with him repeating the same apparent mistruths while never acknowledging being told that PCCF isn’t run by the state DOC. It’s as if his department is intentionally skirting its responsibilities to protect both the mentally ill and the integrity of its field by covering its ears and shouting “I can't hear you!”

Rounding out this apparently intentional systemic inaction, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) has been alerted to numerous safety issues at PCCF, but according to them, rather than inspect the facility themselves, they forward the reports to PCCF, which they trust to self-police. DPH’s faith in McDonald is of little comfort though to the inmates in the isolation cells of PCCF’s G unit on cold winter nights, when the temperature falls below minimum acceptable levels.  Nor does it provide solace to the mentally ill in the jail’s previously mentioned Q5 unit.

Finally, one might expect that even with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts abdicating its responsibilities under Governor Charlie Baker, accreditors might step in to provide some accountability. However, despite the publication of an open letter in the Huffington Post detailing many of these issues, the American Correctional Association (ACA), which accredits PCCF and which recently audited the facility, appears to have ignored these problems. Similarly, after the DPH inspected Hodgson’s facility and cited it for 72 repeat violations without shutting it down, the ACA gave Hodgson a perfect score on a subsequent audit.

Perhaps that's because the ACA was too busy dealing with a scandal of its own. Recently, the Association's former leader, Christopher Epps, who once called himself the “tallest hog at the trough,” was sentenced to 235 months in federal prison -- nearly 20 years -- for a $1.4 million bribery and laundering scheme he took part in while also serving as the director of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Hodgson, McDonald and any accessories of theirs could face equally stiff sentences if such allegations are ever proved against them. Indeed, nearby Middlesex County, Massachusetts Sheriff James DiPaola, a Democrat, took his own life when the State Ethics Commission was closing in on him due to similar “pay-to-play” allegations as have recently been leveled against McDonald by his own staff.

Thankfully for McDonald though, he has one more trick up his sleeve, a “PR czar” named John Birtwell, who sources say has torpedoed exposés on the sheriff in a Weinstein-esque fashion before they could run at local news outlets.

Similarly, when the Boston Globe recently covered a lawsuit brought against Hodgson by mentally ill prisoners, one of whom had been in segregation for nearly two years despite diagnoses of PTSD and bipolar disorder as well as a history of suicide attempts, the paper failed to note the repeat health code violations and issues at ACA when it printed, “Hodgson said state agencies and national accreditation organizations regularly visit the jails and review their policies and procedures toward inmates. The jails have consistently been found to be in compliance with national standards, Hodgson said.”

So, for now, with authorities at the state and federal levels as well as local media outlets all apparently hesitant to scrutinize them, Hodgson and McDonald both seem safe in the nation's bluest stronghold.