The choir sang, “Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Its members are local activists who gathered Sunday outside New Bedford’s Ash Street Jail, calling for its closure.

Between rounds of familiar songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the activists who convened the choir laid out allegations of filthy conditions inside the jail.

“We hear from inmates the heat reaches past 100 degrees in the summer,” said Alex Houston, one of several dozen protesters who attended Sunday’s rally. “Black mold creeps across the walls. Raw sewage floods cells out of broken, rusted pipes.”

Another protester, Rafael Pizarro, said the activist group he and Houston belong to, Bristol County for Correctional Justice, recently convinced state inspectors to visit the jail. 

In a report released in late November, the Department of Public Health identified more than 80 violations but made no mention of sewage leaks, rat infestations or problems with the jail’s climate control systems. 

Still, members of Bristol County for Correctional Justice say the report supports their assertion that the jail is providing substandard living conditions for the roughly 85 prisoners it currently houses. Nearly everyone in the Ash Street Jail — one of three jails managed by the Bristol County sheriff — is being held pre-trial. 

Betty Ussach-Schwartz, a lawyer and member of the group, summarized the inspection’s findings through a PA system during Sunday’s protest.

“There was wall surface damage in 16 cells,” she said. “There were ceilings that were damaged or dirty in 21 cells. Mattresses were destroyed or damaged in 11 cells.”

The holiday protest marked the end of a year that’s seen Hodgson face some of the closest scrutiny of his law enforcement career. Local media have reported three recent suicides under the sheriff’s watch, and the Biden administration closed the county’s immigration detention center in Dartmouth last spring, citing mistreatment of immigrants.

Sunday’s protest was about calling attention to conditions in the Ash Street Jail, and raising a little sympathy for the inmates. Whether the sound of the choir reached the jail cells is hard to say. 

“Our hope is that people will hear us through the walls,” said Amy DeSalvatore, one of the carolers from Fairhaven’s Unitarian Memorial Church.

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson watched the protest from a black SUV parked a block up Ash Street. He denied the allegations about sewage leaks and other unsanitary conditions in his jails. 

 “There aren’t rats and things running around,” Hodgson said. “Could they get into the building? Of course they can, and they can get into a school. This is just political hype around progressive leftists who want to shut down the Ash Street Jail.”

Hodgson said the latest volley of criticism won’t have an effect on the way he runs his jails. 

“In the end, the average person doesn't really care,” the sheriff said.

Hodgson has won reelection handily since he began managing the county’s jails in 1997. His upcoming reelection campaign will be the first in more than a decade where he must face an opponent.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.