As a new presidency nears, a New England sheriff has promised President-elect Donald Trump that inmates in Bristol County, Mass., will help him build his contentious wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said at his inauguration ceremony Wednesday that he plans to put inmate volunteers from the Bristol County House of Correction to work along the southern border. It’s part of Hodgson’s proposal for a nationwide network of inmate workers who could help with things like natural disaster cleanup and large infrastructure projects.
“I can think of no other project that would have such a positive impact on our inmates and our country than building this wall,” the Republican sheriff said at Bristol Community College during his swearing-in ceremony for his fourth six-year term in office, according to the Herald News.
“Aside from learning and perfecting construction skills, the symbolism of these inmates building a wall to prevent crime in communities around the country, and to preserve jobs and work opportunities for them and other Americans upon release, can be very powerful,” he said.
During the presidential campaign, Trump proposed building a massive wall along the 2,000-mile border, at Mexico’s expense – an effort to keep out undocumented immigrants, terrorists and illegal drugs.
The idea became a focal point at Trump’s campaign rallies, with supporters chanting “Build that wall!” Trump has remained resolute in his plan.
Hodgson, a longtime opponent of illegal immigration, said Trump’s wall must be built.
“We won’t have legitimate immigration reform in this country until we build a wall,” he said Wednesday, according to the Herald News.
Amid debate over who would foot the bill for the wall, Hodgson announced Project NICE (National Inmates’ Community Endeavors), a program aimed at rehabilitating inmates by giving them work skills while also providing free labor for big jobs. He said inmates will respond to needs across the country, including cleanup and repairs after catastrophic events such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. They would also work on major projects such as Trump’s border wall.
“Think of how much good could come of 500 or 1,000 extra hands in rebuilding a community after a disaster, and the inmates would learn valuable construction skills and on-the-job training as part of their rehabilitation,” Hodgson said Wednesday, according to a statement from the Bristol County Sheriff’s Department.
Jonathan Darling, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told The Washington Post on Thursday that getting Project NICE off the ground will be a top priority for Hodgson during his next six years in office.
Darling said Hodgson has been speaking to sheriffs across the country about his plan for a national network of inmate workers, which would divide the country into four regions. Then, when a natural disaster strikes, Darling said, inmates in that area who have volunteered to be in the work program will respond.
Although Hodgson did not say Wednesday who would pay to transport and secure inmates on-site, Darling said the sheriff is hoping to partner with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and use federal funding to help cover those costs.
Now that the sheriff has announced his plan for Project NICE, he is working to make it official, Darling said. The Bristol County Sheriff’s Department will soon give a formal presentation at the annual meeting for the National Sheriffs’ Association.
The sheriff’s office has also reached out to Trump’s transition team to formally offer to help build the wall; sheriff’s officials had not heard back as of Thursday morning, Darling said. Trump transition officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The proposal has drawn rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, which called the sheriff’s plan “perverse.”
“It’s inhumane, and it’s most likely unconstitutional,” Laura Rótolo, staff counsel with the ACLU, told the Boston Globe. “It’s also likely an attempt by Sheriff Hodgson just to ride this wave and become famous nationally. . . . I hope we don’t have to take this proposal seriously.”
Rótolo said the ACLU is prepared to take the sheriff to court over the matter.
“If Sheriff Hodgson follows through on this gimmick, the ACLU of Massachusetts is prepared to use every tool in our toolbox, including litigation, to stop him,” Rótolo told the newspaper. “The wall itself . . . is based on racism and hatred, and no self-respecting Massachusetts official should have anything to do with it.”
“The idea of using modern-day slave labor to send people thousands of miles away from their Massachusetts home to build a wall to keep out other vulnerable populations, it’s just preposterous,” she added.
Darling, the Bristol County Sheriff’s Department spokesman, stressed that only inmates who volunteer for the work program will be called on.
“We would never force them to do it,” he said.
Darling called it a “benefit” for qualifying prisoners in Bristol County (and beyond) to take part in existing inmate work programs, which help shave time off their sentences and give them vocational skills they can use once they are released. He noted, however, that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t send violent offenders to help through the inmate work program – nor would it expect other departments to do so through Project NICE.
Asked about the border wall, Darling said the sheriff thought it would be a good project both for the inmates and the country. Hodgson, he said, hopes to be shovel-ready within six months to a year.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Lindsey Bever