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Wyatt board delays vote on forbearance agreement as protesters turn their backs



-Never Again Action and AMOR (Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance) once again staged a large protest

-Protesters tore cloth and recited the Kaddish, a prayer said in memory of the dead

-Saying that it was “insensitive and wrong” the Wyatt board apologized for scheduling a meeting on Shabbat

-Friday night’s board meeting on Shabbat was not shut down, but held and concluded, maintains Wyatt board.

The Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation (CFDFC) board, which technically oversees the operation of the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, did not vote on the forbearance agreement that would reaffirm the for profit prison’s contract with the United States Marshall Service to house Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees. The forbearance agreement would have also allowed the sale of the Wyatt to a for profit prison corporation like CoreCivic, taking the Wyatt out of public control.

The entire meeting took under eight minutes. As boardmember Wilder Arboleda read a statement to the nearly 200 people in attendance, Never Again Action member Amy Cohen blew her shofar, and the audience rose and turned their back on the board. After a few moments, people lined up, and tore black cloth, leaving the fabric in a pile in front of the board.

This was described by Never Again Action as a traditional Jewish mourning ritual: “the tearing of cloth and the recitation of the Kaddish, the prayer said by mourners in memory of the dead.”

“We mourn for the people who have died in ICE’s custody, crossing the United States-Mexico border, and in violence caused by United States foreign policy,” explained Never Again Action organizer Tal Frieden. “We mourn in grieving anticipation of those whose lives will be threatened by the board’s eventual vote.”

Arboleda, elected temporary chair of the CFDFC board, read the following statement, difficult to hear in the video below due to the shofar and the praying:

“I have an announcement to make, and I would like everyone’s attention please.

“First, we wholeheartedly and sincerely apologize for scheduling our meeting on Friday, which coincided with the Jewish Sabbath. We worked as quickly as possible to reschedule the prior meeting, which had previously been postponed, because we understood that many community members wanted to express their opinions during public comment. While it was in no way intended to quell or chill discussion, it was indeed insensitive and wrong. We apologize to our Jewish friends and ask your forgiveness.

“Second, we will NOT be voting on the proposed Forbearance Agreement with UMB Bank tonight as we the Board also have concerns that we need to have addressed. We will be going into closed session tonight to discuss the draft Forbearance Agreement with our lawyers, and then we will be discussing it tomorrow with the Court, as it pertains to pending litigation. After the closed session, we will reconvene, confirm no votes were taken in closed session, and then immediately adjourn. I want to reiterate, the Board will not take ANY votes this evening regarding the proposed Forbearance Agreement.

“Finally, we heard your comments on Friday and we appreciate the sincerity and passion the community brings to this issue. So, before we take a vote to go into closed session, let me make these observations as chair:

  • We do have moral, legal and fiduciary obligations as Directors. We recognize we have obligations to multiple stakeholders and constituents of the Wyatt:
  • We have obligations to the health and safety of our detainees.
  • We have obligations to the health and safety of our public safety and corrections officers as well as other staff members.
  • We have obligations to the people of Central Falls, our host community and legislative appointing body.
  • We have obligations to you, the people of Rhode Island, as we are a legislatively created body.
  • And, we do have obligations to UMB Bank. Not because we care whether they are profitable, but because we borrowed money and have an obligation (legal, ethical and moral) to try to repay that debt.

“So, having said that, I will now accept:

“A motion to amend tonight’s agenda to include adjourning to a meeting closed to the public for the express purpose of discussing pending litigation with UMB Bank pursuant to Rhode Island General Laws Section 42-46-5(a)(2).”

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With that, CFDFC boardmembers Herman Yip and Gary Berdugo voted with Arboleda to go into executive session.

As the board entered executive session, Never Again Action and AMOR held a press conference outside the prison.

“Today, by moving into private session and excluding the public from deliberation of this morally bankrupt agreement, the Board of the Wyatt has decided to be on the side of immorality, and cruelty, ” said Never Again Action organizer Tal Frieden. “They have shown that they are comfortable trafficking in humans and profiting by imprisoning the most vulnerable people in our society. “

“We demand that Wyatt cease to function as an institution completely,” said Catarina Lorenzo, director of AMOR, in Spanish, but translated into English by Arely Diaz. “The presence of a private, federal prison in Central Falls Rhode Island hurts our communities and makes us complicit in the terror caused by this entity and this institution.”

“Last week, California passed legislation banning private prisons,” said Never Again Action organizer Aaron Regunberg, a former State Representative. “Their new law, it’s been reported, will shutter ICE’s four main immigration detention centers in that state.”

The leadership in other states to pass such legislation, said Regunberg, “stands in sharp contrast to what we are seeing in Rhode Island. Here, our governor and top legislative leaders stood by and watched as the prison behind us contracted with ICE to wage war on human beings whose only crime is seeking safety and hope for their families…

“Governor Raimondo, we are talking to you, as Jews, as immigrants, as Central Falls residents, as Rhode Islanders who were pepper-sprayed and assaulted,” continued Regunberg. “We need you to make good on your promise to oppose Donald Trump’s hateful immigration policies. Do you want to be a leader against bigotry, violence, and dehumanization of our immigrant brothers and sisters? What do you value more, the people of Rhode Island and the safety of immigrants or the financial interests of out-of-state investors?

“We are here tonight to invite you with open arms to join our fight to make real the promise of Never Again,” concluded Regunberg.

Central Falls City Councilor Jessica Vega is among the many Central Falls public officials being sued by UMB Bank on the part of the Wyatt bondholders, for $130M.

“I’m a proud Dominican immigrant and a Central Falls resident,” said Vega. “I am aware that the laws in this country weren’t written for people who look like me. I’m aware that the very foundation of this government was based and rooted in oppression and inequality. Many people in this country in 2016 finally were woken by the fact that this country still has disparities and that inequity still persists. Unfortunately for many people in that facility this immigrant woman standing in front of you is a survivor and also a City Councilwoman here in Central Falls.

“As a person in a position of power my duty is to fight with and for my community, not to be embedded with greedy corporations and their goons.

“I am no one’s fool,” continued Vega. “I was not born yesterday. I know that the Wyatt and private corporations and facilities like it are not invested in public safety or rehabilitation. They’re here to profit off the backs of the very vulnerable and they hide and justify their abuse by standing behind a coward who called my brothers and sisters drug dealers rapists who come from shit hole countries. I’m disappointed by what happened tonight, but I’m not discouraged from continuing my actions.

“Last month Governor Raimondo signed an executive order establishing the Juvenile and Criminal Justice working group, but I urge her to take it to another level. Step up. Ban private [prison] corporations from coming into the state of Rhode Island.

“I’m also calling out and calling in Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee. I’m calling out and calling in our state reps and our senators and their colleagues at the State House. We are all responsible,” concluded Vega. “We are all to be held accountable for what happens here in Central Falls.”

Matt Harvey outlined the three demands made by Never Again Action in their open letter to Governor Gina Raimondo:

  1. Publicly support legislation to close the Wyatt detention facility and ban private prisons in Rhode Island.
  2. Do everything in your power to release all ICE detainees held at the Wyatt.
  3. End all state and local collaboration with ICE in Rhode Island.

When I first got into the meeting space, there were chains, pylons and signs set up to separate CFDFC board from those seeking to attend the meeting. The chains, pylons and signs were removed before too many people got inside:

Security was also tightened, even though the only violence taking place at any meeting or demonstration held at the Wyatt this year was from Wyatt correctional officers:

I titled my coverage of Friday night’s CFDFC board meeting “Did protesters shut down Friday night’s Wyatt board meeting?” because I wasn’t sure that the CFDFC board felt that the meeting was shut down. I asked Wyatt spokesperson Chris Hunter about this.

“A public meeting. They went through the agenda and they adjourned the meeting,” said Hunter.

“Right, but nobody could hear the discussion, so it couldn’t have been considered a public meeting in any real way, could it?” I asked.

“The board made its way through the agenda, and the meeting was adjourned.” said Hunter.

“But no one knows what the board said,” I countered.

“You heard what I just told you,” said Hunter.

“You don’t think the Attorney General would think that was kind of a fake meeting?” I pushed.

“The board went through it’s agenda, adjourned,” repeated Hunter.

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.