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Wyatt’s shadow looms over Senate Hearing


Wyatt’s shadow looms over Senate Hearing

Mar 23, 2023 | 3:00 am ET
By Kevin G. Andrade
Wyatt’s shadow looms over Senate Hearing
The Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade)

The edifice of the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls loomed over a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday night as it heard testimony on two bills affecting its operation.

The bills, S408 and S410, were introduced by Sen. Jonathon Acosta, D-Central Falls, a longtime opponent of the nation’s first publicly-owned, privately-run, detention center. It was the third year in a row he introduced both.

S410 would repeal the Municipal Detention Facility Corporations Act, passed in 1991 to enable the city of Central Falls to create the prison and resolve a fiscal crisis.

In its place, the law would prohibit the Department of Corrections or any law enforcement agency from entering into an agreement with a for-profit prison within or outside the state. It would also prohibit the creation of any new contracts for a privately operated facility within Rhode Island after Jan. 1, 2023, and would sunset any agreements made before that date in 2030.

S408 would ban any state or local government entity from signing a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Wyatt is the only such entity in the state at the moment.

“We believe [Wyatt] was a mistake,” Acosta testified before the committee. “There was a cash strapped city in the late ’80s-early ’90s, facing a shrinking tax base that was faced with a choice. One of those choices was opening a quasi-public prison and to make money by detaining people.”

Central Falls is a city of 22,583 just over one square mile in size where 70% of the population is Latino and almost 38% are foreign born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s a terribly ironic situation,” Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, told the Current. “A city that was, and is, filled with a large Latino population was locking up Latinos and subjecting them to sometimes terrible conditions for profit.”

Special master’s limited role ends

The bills came as a four-year-old lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the prison by bondholders appears to be approaching a conclusion. At a recent meeting of the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation’s governing board, Board Chairman James Lombardi said he hopes the litigation and restructuring of bonds will be resolved by June.

Deming Sherman, a lawyer the court appointed as special master in 2019 to mediate disputes in the case, left the position by court order on Feb. 28.

“I was appointed to resolve certain disputes between the bondholders and the owner/management of the facility,” Sherman told the Current in an email. “As it turns out, there were no significant disputes that required my intervention, and, as a result, my role was very limited.“

A city that was, and is, filled with a large Latino population was locking up Latinos and subjecting them to sometimes terrible conditions for profit.

– Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island

Though the Wyatt is classified as nonprofit, Acosta said its main purpose is to create revenue for bondholders and the city, in that order. 

“It’s classified as a nonprofit for tax purposes but it still generates revenue,” Acosta told the Current. “That revenue comes from holding people behind bars.”

In 2005, the prison issued $106 million in bonds to finance renovation and construction projects.

“The Wyatt messed up in taking on these bonds to improve the facility,” Acosta said. “It took on way more debt than any responsible facility should.”

According to a 2012 report on the Wyatt by the General Assembly, from 1994 to 2009 — when payments stopped — the city received more than $5 million in impact fees from the Wyatt. 

The Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation — which governs the quasi-public prison — has contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service, ICE, and U.S. Navy to hold prisoners at the facility. 

The contracts, obtained by The Current, give the services access to a set number of beds and charge different fees on a per diem rate per bed. ICE pays $119.18, the U.S. Navy pays $101.76, and the U.S. Marshals Service pays $180.97.

As of the most recent publicly available account in January, there were 594 inmates housed for the U.S. Marshals Service, 61 for ICE, and five for the Federal Bureau of Prisons via its contract with the U.S. Marshals ServiceThere are 770 beds total in the facility.

According to the draft minutes from the January Board Meeting, the prison received $35.1 million in revenue from January to November 2022.

Freezing out ICE

S408 does not directly address the Wyatt because ICE contracts would be grandfathered. But Brown said there’s no question the prison would be indirectly affected.

“Contracts with ICE would all lead to detaining people at Wyatt,” he said. “I think they’re connected.”

Acosta described the bill as a preemptive move to prevent municipalities from being tempted with financial incentives against cooperating with the agency.

“This bill is to prevent other municipalities from deputizing officers to serve as ICE officers,” Acosta said, referring to the agency’s 287(g) program. The program allows local law enforcement in participating jurisdictions to perform some duties of immigration agents, such as entering data into the ICE database, ascertaining an individual’s status, issuing detainers, and more. 

There are currently no 287(g) agreements in effect in Rhode Island

Proponents of the bill who spoke at the hearing said the issue was a question of humanity.

“We do not believe in profiting from the criminalization of human beings,” David Veliz, director of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, told the committee. 

When contacted by Rhode Island Current, representatives from the Wyatt and ICE declined to comment on the legislation.

History of the Wyatt

When Wyatt began operation in 1993, it was initially intended for use by the U.S. Marshals Service. ICE detainees were held at the facility from 2005 to 2008, when the death of Hiu Lui Ng — who had been denied treatment for liver cancer for months before his death in custody — prompted the agency’s withdrawal from the prison. 

The ensuing drop in revenue meant the city received no money from the Wyatt for a decade so the prison could pay operating expenses and bondholders, said Acosta.

In 2019, ICE returned to the prison, prompting protests and measures by the city of Central Falls to end the agreement. When the governing board of the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation suspended the contract for 90 days, bondholders represented by UMB Bank filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Providence, which resulted in an order to reinstate the contract so as to pay bondholders. 

“The history of the Wyatt should teach us all a lesson about the dangers and downsides of welcoming for-profit prisons in the state,” Brown said. “This state should reject the notion that locking people up is a profit-making venture.”