Metro, News

Wyatt board approves controversial agreement

Wednesday vote prevents facility board from terminating contract with ICE

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 31, 2019

During a public meeting Wednesday evening, activists turned their backs on the board overseeing the Wyatt Facility.

The board overseeing the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility voted to continue its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and set in motion a process for the potential sale of the facility during a public meeting Wednesday evening, as activists turned away in protest.

The vote at the facility’s gymnasium approved a revised forbearance agreement with UMB Bank — which is structured to alleviate the financial problems of the Central Falls facility. The bank is a trustee for bondholders who claim they are owed an excess of $100 million, The Herald previously reported.

Supported by three of the four board members who were present Wednesday, the agreement prevents the 770-bed prison from terminating any of its “service contracts with any federal, state or tribal agencies” such as ICE and erodes any community oversight that previously existed.

The vote was originally scheduled for Sept. 16, when the board abruptly postponed the vote over unspecified “concerns” before moving into closed session, The Herald previously reported. The version of the agreement approved Wednesday evening includes slightly different language than the document under consideration in September, but there were no substantive changes discussed during Wednesday’s public meeting.

“The UMB Financial Corporation’s forbearance agreement is still, substantively, a horrifying document,” said Aaron Regunberg ’12, Never Again Action organizer and former state representative, at the public meeting. “None of its inhumane elements have been materially changed.”

The vote’s delay followed a series of clashes between community members calling for the facility’s closure and representatives of the Wyatt, who have struggled to address public outcry, The Herald previously reported.

Jewish-led advocacy group Never Again Action, AMOR and other community allies have been protesting the facility’s detention of asylum-seeking refugees and undocumented immigrants as they await trial proceedings for months. Activists have called on local politicians to ban private prisons in Rhode Island, release all ICE detainees and prohibit local and state collaboration with ICE. In mid-October, Gov. Gina Raimondo came out in support of banning private prisons. “I stand with Rhode Islanders in opposing (President Trump’s) policies,” Raimondo said in a statement, WPRI reported. “I would support legislation from the General Assembly that prohibits private prisons in Rhode Island.”

James Lombardi, chair of the Wyatt’s governing body, told the crowd Wednesday: “I understand that some of you want the Wyatt shut down, and I will tell you that is simply not an option.”

During the allocated time for public comment before the vote took place, activist after activist spoke out against the agreement, demanding that the facility’s directors vote against the proposal or resign from their position on the board.

Stephanie Gonzalez, a former Central Falls City Council member who is married to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, read testimonies from ICE detainees across the country, including one from a former detainee at the Wyatt who said that guards had refused medical treatment to a fellow detainee.

“As you weigh the advice of your lawyers to do what’s best for the Wyatt,” said Gonzalez to the board, “I hope you weigh these testimonies and remember that you are human beings first, and you owe a duty to your fellow human beings.”

Lombardi stressed his belief that all detainees housed at the Wyatt are treated fairly and are in the hands of well-trained staff. In contextualizing the board’s vote, he also contested that passing the agreement was essential to the facility’s financial stability.

After the vote was announced, protesters funneled out of the meeting, chanting “Up, Up with Liberation, Down, Down with Deportation!” as they left.

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