New Board Chair Joseph Molina Flinn says Warden overstepped in signing contract; cites human rights and fiduciary concerns
The meeting at the Wyatt Detention Facility Training Building gymnasium was attended by over 100 people, including elected officials, community members and prison staff. The new Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation (CFDFC) board, which oversees operations at the Wyatt, was sworn in and immediately went to work. Newly appointed board member Joseph Molina Flynn, an immigration lawyer and President of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee (RILPAC) was unanimously elected chair. Then Board member Agostinho Silva, who is President Preo-Tempore of the Central Falls City Council, recused himself and left the room.
The City Council has been alarmed by revelations two weeks ago that the Wyatt had reached an agreement with the United States Marshall Service to house up to 225 United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees under a recent Zero Tolerance Southern Border Policy instituted under President Donald Trump. Several members of the City Council, including Council President Maria Rivera and the Mayor of Central Falls, James Diossa, have publicly stated that they wish to see the facility closed for good.
The four remaining CFDFC Board members then voted to go into executive session to discuss the contract. Some in the room, unfamiliar with the way the Open Meetings Act works, were confused. Under the law, public boards and commissions may hold certain discussions, specifically concerning contract negotiations, potential ligation and labor disputes, out of view of the public. After executive session, the Board is required to report back to the public any decisions made and votes taken. The board was in executive session with Wyatt staff including Warden Daniel Martin, Wyatt legal council Kerry Walsh from the law firm of Pannone, Lopes, Devereaux and O’Gara, and Wyatt Spokesperson Christopher Hunter for about 45 minutes.
When the CFDFC Board returned, Chair Molina Flynn immediately issued two decisions, addressing issues that had not yet been on the public’s radar, but displayed in some ways the depth of the structural problems at the Wyatt.
“It has come to my attention that our legal council has been in coordination with the attorney for the bondholders,” said Molina Flynn to Attorney Kerry Walsh. “I will remind you council that we are the corporation. We are the client. As chair, I instruct you to not have any contact with the bondholders or their attorney without my approval or my presence. Is that understood?”
The bondholders, who funded the renovations at the Wyatt, are represented by a law firm out of Boston.
Attorney Walsh is the Wyatt legal council who denied portions of my Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request.
“Similarly it has come to my attention that our public relations consultant, Chris Hunter, has been drafting media statements with the bondholder’s attorney and Pannone Lopes with no involvement or approval from this Board. That is unacceptable and I am instructing you that I, as chair, must be involved in all communications with the media and drafting of all statements and that bondholders and their lawyer are not to be involved without my consent.”
That business out of the way, Molina Flynn reiterated that the CFDFC Board has the power to enter into and terminate all contracts. The contract to house ICE detainees, said Molina Flynn, “was never vetted or approved by this board.”
“Despite the protests and the counterprotests and the letters back and forth between the bondholders and the City, I want to be very clear,” said Molina Flynn. “This board is an independent governing body of this corporation… This board, under the oath we just took, is required to uphold the Constitution and laws of this State and the Constitution of the United States.
“The Constitution gives citizens, residents and asylum seekers alike basic due process rights that are incumbent on us to support… among other important legal rights.”
Molina Flynn noted the death of immigrant detainee Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng who died at the Wyatt in 2008 from negligent medical care. Since
“There are currently no regulations or rules to ensure the basic due process rights, human rights and human dignity for our detainees so that another immigrant death will not happen again.
“This board has been provided no proof that Rhode Island based legal services have been provided and/or are available to these detainees,” continued Molina Flynn. “This board has been provided no proof that Rhode Island based mental health services have been provided and/or are available to these detainees. This board has been provided no proof that Rhode Island based medical care physical examinations have been provided and/or are available to these detainees, nor have we been provided any proof that Rhode Island based religious liberties and religious services have been provided and/or are available to these detainees. This board has been provided no proof that Rhode Island based interpreting, translating an consulate services have been provided and/or are available to these detainees.”
“Finally, it has come to this Board’s attention that many of these detainees, currently being held, appear to be under the age of 18. This board has been provided no proof the facility has an age verification process in place to ensure that these detainees are being provided their adequate legal rights depending on their age.”
Given that the contract under review is for $2.5 million per year, Molina Flynn and the Board concluded that the financial burden would not be undue given the Board’s obligation to uphold due process rights.
The board then unanimously decided to suspend the contract with ICE for 90 days. All detainees are to be returned to ICE and the United States Marshall Service within seven days. The Warden and legal consul must draft rules and regulations to guarantee the rights cited by Molina Flynn above. These rules need to be presented to the Board in July. The 90 day suspension shall remain in effect until the Board approves the new rules and regulations.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Central Falls City Councilor Jessica Vega (Ward 5). “I’m glad that we as a Council fought for this, we had our voices heard, we marched, we continue to make noise, we were adamant about what we thought was right. It’s bitter because we don’t know where these people are going. We know that they are being sent back to ICE custody, and that my understanding is back to Arizona, but that doesn’t fix the issue.”
Councilor Vega has been a strong voice for closing the Wyatt Detention Facility entirely.
“The larger issue,” said Vega, “that this country has when it comes to the treatment of black and brown people and black and brown immigrants…
“This is a start,” said Vega. “I’m glad this was done, but long term goals, that’s what we need to think about.”
Some comments from Joseph Molina Flynn, after the meeting:
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