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“Which side are you on?”: Protesters shut down Wyatt Detention Facility board meeting

Never Again Action organizes protest Friday night, holds Shabbat service at facility

On Friday night, hundreds of protesters shut down a board meeting at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility that was scheduled to discuss a proposed “forbearance” agreement. The agreement would contractually bind the facility to continue housing asylum-seeking refugees and undocumented immigrants as they await trial proceedings, the Boston Globe uncovered.

Protesters, who largely belonged to the Jewish organizing group Never Again Action, chanted, sang and held an impromptu Shabbat service to demonstrate their disapproval of the agreement.

The proposal involves the Central Falls prison and UMB Bank — the trustee for bondholders with approximately $130 million invested in the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation. Structured to alleviate the facility’s financial problems, the new agreement would strengthen the facility’s hotly contested contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The prison would be required to hold a minimum of 625 detainees a day.

The arrangement would also allow board members to enter negotiations to sell the 770-bed prison to a for-profit, private company and reduce the city of Central Falls’ oversight of the prison.

Chris Hunter, Wyatt spokesperson, declined to comment on Friday’s protest and the activists’ demands.

The protest marks the latest step taken by Never Again Action organizers to oppose the Central Falls prison’s link to ICE and the chance it could fall into the hands of a for-profit company. Their last event, which took place August 14, ended in violence when a Wyatt correctional officer drove his truck into a group of peacefully-assembled protesters. The incident hospitalized five, two from sustaining vehicle injuries and three from pepper spray exposure, The Herald previously reported.

The Wyatt has long been embroiled in a series of controversies for its treatment of detainees, and has faced increased scrutiny since renewing its contract with ICE earlier this year. The American Civil Liberties Union previously sued the Wyatt after the 2008 death of 34-year-old Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng. According to the lawsuit, Ng had suffered “cruel, inhumane, malicious and sadistic behavior” while incarcerated at the Wyatt.

More recently, detainee Gilbert Delestre, who had been housed at the facility since July, died at Rhode Island Hospital August 25. “Warden Daniel Martin has personally reviewed all aspects of Mr. Delestre’s access to medical care and determined that all Wyatt protocols were followed,” GoLocalProv reported.

On Friday, a crowd of about 300 community members swelled on the sidewalk outside the Wyatt facility to protest the proposed agreement between the facility and UMB.

Warren and Sharron Wollschlager, husband and wife and both wearing yellow “Never Again, Para Nadie” T-shirts, drove an hour and a half to join the protest. “We are here to support our friends and the immigrants that are locked up,” Sharron Wollschlager said. “We’ve both been attending these kind of events since the Vietnam days,” Warren Wollschlager added.

Joel Relihan, who drove to Central Falls from Massachusetts, clutched a large sign containing the single question: “Which side are you on?” It was not his first time attending a protest outside of the Wyatt, and Relihan said he doubted that it would be his last.

Referencing the Wyatt’s relationship with ICE, Relihan said he felt “appalled by the indecency of all this.”

Joined by activists from the Providence-based coalition Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance and other allies, the sea of Never Again Action protesters filed into the facility’s gymnasium. Dozens remained outside after being told by police that the room was at capacity.

Once inside, seven activists spoke against the proposal, demanding that the facility’s directors vote against the forbearance agreement or resign from their position on the board.

“Board members, you are here as public servants,” said Roger Williams University Law Professor Jared Goldstein. “The agreement you are considering tonight would betray the public trust that you’re here to serve,” he continued.

“You can make a choice,” said Matthew Harvey ’97, a spokesperson of Never Again Action, to the board. “You can say, ‘I will not vote for an agreement that keeps ICE in this community.’ You can say, ‘I will not vote for an agreement that puts this facility and the human beings incarcerated inside into the hands of a for-profit corporation.’ Or, you can say, ‘I will not be part of a body that is told to make that kind of decision.’”

Protesters also addressed the facility officials’ decision to reschedule the meeting from Monday to Friday evening, which marks the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Officials had announced that the meeting would be postponed hours before the scheduled meeting time Monday, writing that the number of people who planned to attend required the implementation of “safety measures.”

“By rescheduling the meeting at the start of the Jewish Sabbath, the members of the board showed disdain for our community,” said Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, associate University chaplain for the Jewish community, while reading from a statement from the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. Dardashti then left to take leave for Sabbath, which prohibits work activities.

But hundreds of protesters still attended the meeting. “We are here tonight, on Shabbat, because UMB Bank’s proposal is not just something that should never happen, it’s something that we, the people of Rhode Island, are actually not going to allow to happen,” said Aaron Regunberg ’12, former Rhode Island state representative.

“Today you have an incredible responsibility and job to be bold,” said Stephanie Gonzalez, a former Central Falls City Council member who is married to Mayor Jorge Elorza. “Choose to be bold. And I’ll echo what others have said: Come on this side. Join us. Choose to be bold.”

Alice Webb, whose daughter previously worked at the Wyatt, spoke in favor of the prison during the meeting. “Why would you want to shut down a facility that abides by the rules, treats people fairly and houses people that come here to our country?” asked Webb.

About an hour after the meeting began, a protester blew a shofar, a horn used in Jewish religious ceremonies. At this call, another Never Again Action protester, Fil Eden, stood and led a call-and-response answered by a majority of the 300 people in the room. They chanted: “Reject this process. It is a sham and a travesty. We, the people of Rhode Island, will not allow UMB Bank to use our state to make profits by dehumanizing our immigrant brothers and sisters. Never Again means never again for everyone. You canceled your last meeting, we’re canceling this meeting. Shabbat Shalom.”

The Wyatt board called for order and then a temporary break. As they exited the room, protesters continue to sing: “We’ve got ancestors at our backs. We’ve got generations forward. We’ve got land and spirit in our bones. Never Again. Para Nadie.”

In the absence of the board members, the assembled protesters celebrated the beginning of Shabbat. “They will not take Shabbat from us,” said activist Lex Rofeberg '13 as people passed around challah bread and grape juice.

While addressing the crowd in Spanish, Catarina Lorenzo from AMOR spoke about the severity of the situation, reminding those assembled that the lives of the detainees were at stake.

When the board members returned, they were greeted with the crowd singing: “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” After failing to regain control of the meeting, the officials adjourned the event and Central Falls Police, alongside state troopers, escorted the board members out of the room. Inside, the singing, chanting and clapping roared on.

Central Falls City Council member Jonathon Acosta ’11 then addressed the crowd. “What (the board members) are saying is that all they care about is bondholders,” said Acosta. “This state has already shown, multiple times … (that it) will always privilege creditors over people.”

Acosta led the protesters from the gymnasium to the street, where they continued to chant. In response to organizers’ songs and chants, detainees inside the Wyatt banged on their windows, which further intensified the calls of “Shut it down” and “Never Again.”

The Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation intends to vote on the forbearance agreement Monday evening during their next meeting. No time for public comment is scheduled, but as protesters disbanded and left the Wyatt, Never Again Action organizers expressed the intention to return Monday night and once again demonstrate mass opposition to the prison.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Catarina Lorenzo's name as Catarina Lorenza. The article also failed to include that Lex Rofeberg graduated from Brown in 2013. The article has been updated to reflect those changes. The Herald regrets the errors. 

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