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R.I. Attorney General investigates violence against protestors at Wyatt Detention Facility

Corrections officer drives pickup truck through Never Again Action protestors last week, five hospitalized for pepper spray exposure, vehicle injuries

On Wednesday, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha spoke at a press conference to provide further details about the state’s investigation into violence by correctional employees that disrupted a peaceful protest by the advocacy group Never Again Action outside the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility August 14. 

Toward the end of the protest in Central Falls, R.I., a black pickup truck allegedly driven by a detention center officer struck a line of protestors before other officers pepper-sprayed some of those protesting, according to a video and eyewitness accounts.

Neronha, who was joined by Central Falls Police and State Police representatives, said the investigation’s "principal focus is on the operation of the vehicle in question and the deployment of pepper spray." The Wyatt had issued a statement last Friday that said the facility is conducting its own internal investigation under Detention Facility Warden Daniel Martin.

Two people were hospitalized as a result of vehicle injuries, and three others received hospital treatment for pepper spray exposure. All five individuals were released the following day. Several University students attended the protest August 14 and none were hospitalized.

The investigation has interviewed 31 witnesses to date and plans to interview at least 20 more. From these interviews, Neronha said they found "some conflicting reports as to the extent of the injuries,” adding that "to the extent that we consider charges, the injuries are highly significant." 

Neronha anticipates the investigation will conclude in several weeks, he said at the press conference.   

Neronha’s statement follows the resignation of Captain Thomas Woodworth last Friday. Woodworth, who was placed on administrative leave the day before his resignation, allegedly drove the pickup truck into the group of assembled protestors, according to witnesses. While the Wyatt did not directly confirm the identity of Woodworth as the driver, his name can be heard in video recordings of the protests, according to the Providence Journal

The Herald could not reach Woodworth, and he has not given any statements at this time.


A peaceful gathering turns violent

The incident under investigation marks the first case of violence at any of the dozens of Never Again Action protests organized across the country this summer.

The protest last week was the second to be organized by Never Again Action outside the Wyatt this summer. On July 2, Never Again Action organized a protest of over 200 people outside the Wyatt and 18 protestors were arrested for civil disobedience, the Providence Journal reported. Three of the protestors arrested were Brown University students, wrote Tal Frieden ’19.5, a Never Again Action and R.I. protest organizer, in an email to The Herald. 

Never Again Action describes itself as "a mass mobilization of Jews who are organizing to shut down ICE and hold the political establishment accountable for enabling both the deportation machine that has separated immigrant families across the U.S. for decades and the current crisis at the border."

On August 14, immigration activists organized by a local chapter of Never Again Action gathered outside the Wyatt to protest the facility’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and to call for the center’s closure. They also protested broader issues such as the detention and deportation of asylum-seeking refugees and undocumented immigrants across the country. 

The Wyatt, a publicly owned and privately operated prison run by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation, renewed its contract with ICE earlier this year. ICE had previously terminated its contract with the Wyatt in 2008, after an immigrant detainee died while in the center’s custody. The Wyatt began housing 133 detainees in March, The Herald previously reported. As of July 8, the facility holds 139 detainees.

"Unfortunately, recent testimonies by folks released reveal that the conditions are worse than we could have imagined. Rhode Island is hosting a concentration camp in our state," Frieden wrote.  

Frieden added that state officials should also "ban private prisons" and "advocate for dignity and permanent protection for all undocumented people in Rhode Island and the U.S.”

About 500 people were present at the protest August 14, according to the Providence Journal, including community advocacy groups such as Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance (AMOR), Progreso Latino and Fuerza Laboral, according to video footage of speakers at the protest.

Protestors walked from Jenks Park in Central Falls to the Wyatt, where Christian Andrade, Aaron Regunberg ’12, a former state representative and candidate for lieutenant governor, and Emily Titon delivered a list of demands for greater transparency about detainment conditions and better treatment for ICE detainees within the center. When the demands went unmet, protestors remained outside the facility for hours.

"We have not received any comment on the initial demands we have presented, and which AMOR and others have been advancing for months," Frieden wrote.

During the protest, attendees received encouragement from detainees inside the facility, said Ben Bienstock ’20, adding that they “were slamming on the windows, were waving, flickering their lights on and off; people put signs up in their windows that said ‘Shut Down the Wyatt.’” 

Protestors first blocked the prison’s larger two entrances and later moved to block the employee entrance around 9 p.m, according to the Boston Globe.

Shortly before 10 p.m., a black pickup truck driven by a Wyatt employee in uniform rammed through protestors blocking the entrance to the prison parking lot. Some protestors jumped out of the way while others stood in front of the car to block its path. In a video posted to Facebook by Never Again Action, protestors shouted “shame” and “the whole world is watching” as they gathered around the car window.

About a dozen correctional officers whose identities are unknown then exited the Wyatt and used pepper spray on protestors while they helped the driver exit his vehicle. 

At least a dozen University-affiliated individuals attended the protest, "some of whom were affected by pepper spray and the attack," Frieden wrote. 

Bienstock did not see any city or state police officers intervene until after the use of pepper spray by Wyatt correctional officers. "There was no attempt to detain or arrest the officer who drove (the black pickup truck)"  into the protestors, Bienstock said. 

The police also refused to take testimony from the attacked protestors and said they would only record witness statements at the station, Bienstock said, while Frieden wrote that "droves of protestors clamored to give testimony." 

At Wednesday's press conference, State Police Colonel James Manni said most officers present outside the Wyatt the night of the protest were city police officers, who were joined by just "three state police cruisers with five troopers" patrolling the area in an "abundance of caution." 

Rhode Island State Police Assistant Detective Commander Captain John Alfred told The Herald Monday that they continue to perform a "very active and open investigation." He did not answer further questions about the protest. 

ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls wrote that "ICE personnel were not involved in the protest response that occurred Wednesday night" in an email to The Herald.

The Central Falls Police Department and the Wyatt Detention Facility did not respond to request for comment by press time.


Moving forward

Following the resignation of Captain Woodworth last Friday, Never Again Action Spokesperson Amy Anthony released a statement on the same day calling for the city to take action against Woodworth and other officers. Anthony said in the statement that Woodworth "should face criminal charges for his actions which endangered the lives of protesters on Wednesday night. The other officers who indiscriminately pepper-sprayed a distraught and traumatized crowd must face accountability for the violence they enacted." 

Never Again Action expects the ongoing investigation "to continue and to address the violence and dehumanization that is an integral part of the ICE detention process," according to Anthony’s statement. 

Since the event, several Rhode Island representatives have sharply criticized the violence.

“I share the outrage Rhode Islanders are feeling about the incident depicted in the video at the Wyatt Detention Center,” said Governor Gina Raimondo in a statement. “Our state and our nation were built on the idea that everyone has a right to express their opinion publicly and peacefully.”

U.S. Congressman David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., said in a press release August 15 that he was “deeply disturbed” by reports of the vehicle hitting protestors as a violation to the democratic right to peaceful protest.

Mayor Jorge Elorza went a step further on Tuesday, joining the call "for shutting down Wyatt and banning the operation of private for-profit prisons in Rhode Island." Elorza condemned the violence at the Wyatt as undermining the facility's stated mission "to protect the public from people who pose a threat to society" and also emphasized the place of undocumented immigrants in his own personal history. 

“My parents were undocumented immigrants for their first ten to 12 years here in the United States," he said, recalling that as a child he could never register for Little League Baseball and other activities because his "family was always afraid of giving out our info."

Clarification: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that a detention center officer allegedly drove a black pickup truck directly through a line of protestors. The sentence has been updated to more clearly reflect uncertainty surrounding the identity of the truck driver, not the action. The Herald regrets the error. 


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