Bristol County Jail in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts is undergoing an unprecedented crisis. Inmates in the institution are committing suicide in record numbers. Lawsuits are piling up as grieving families seek answers and accountability. For many, the buck stops with one man: Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, a tough as nails law enforcer who is the longest serving sheriff in the state. "American Sheriff" exposes Hodgson's apathetic response to the suicide epidemic, and the aggressive tactics that made it possible.
There are more than 3,000 sheriffs in the United States, and in many instances they operate with complete autonomy. Such is the case with Hodgson, who has worked feverishly to implement stricter regulations on county inmates.
Taking away privileges such as television, weightlifting or an abundance of food might seem benign to some, but other reforms that endanger basic human comforts and health are drawing a considerable amount of ire among critics. Operating well above capacity, the inmates exist in crammed environments. Many of them are forced to sleep on the floor. Even more egregious is the treatment of the mentally ill population. These inmates are often deprived of their medications and placed in solitary confinement, a punishment that only exacerbates their fragile mental state. Cries for help frequently go unheeded.
What's happening in Bristol County is not an anomaly. In a system devoid of checks and balances, a culture of abuse and mismanagement has been allowed to fester in many communities across the country. The filmmakers witness this firsthand as they travel to New Iberia, Louisiana. There, the sheriff and his deputies appear to operate with absolute impunity. According to many of the film's most persuasive interview subjects, their abuses are motivated in large part by racial animus, and expressed through bursts of extreme physical violence, deplorable living conditions, and sadistic exercises designed to humiliate and degrade.
Our elected law enforcement officials are not above the law themselves, yet many feel empowered to behave as though they are. By shining a light on their misconduct, "American Sheriff" encourages voting citizens to implement a little reform of their own when they arrive at the ballot box.