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The Uprising! October 25, 2019



Since April, over 500 people suspected of being undocumented immigrants have been imprisoned at the Wyatt. “Some of the inmates under federal control [at the Wyatt] are merely witnesses and detainees who have not been charged with or convicted of crimes,” notes Wyatt attorney Patrick McBurney of the law firm Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara.

The detainees are controlled and managed by Correctional Officers who assault peaceful protesters with pickup trucks and pepper spray with impunity, who are literally above the law outside the prison. Inside the prison, they have the power of life and death, and death happens there.

Why is this allowed? Money. Each detainee is worth over $100 a day to the prison’s investors and the various companies that deliver services to that prison, like McBurney’s corporate masters at PLDO LLC and the bondholders at UMB Bank.

Welcome to the Uprising!

1a. Wyatt

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha announced Wednesday that the investigation of an incident at the Wyatt Detention Facility on August 14 has concluded and that no criminal charges will be filed. During that incident, a pickup truck driven by Wyatt Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth rushed into a group of peaceful protesters organized by Never Again Action and AMOR (Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance). Soon after the truck barrelled into protesters about a dozen more Wyatt Correctional Officers waded into protesters with pepper spray. At least four people were sent to the hospital.

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The protests were sparked by the revelation that the Wyatt had entered into an agreement with the United States Marshal Service to house Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees held under President Donald Trump‘s zero-tolerance border policy.

“A peaceful protest – a right enshrined in our Constitution – devolved into an extremely unfortunate incident that could have been avoided had better systems been in place to ensure public safety,” said Neronha. “There is much to learn from this incident. It is my hope that we will do so.”

Neronha met with victims in his Cranston office on Wednesday, before noon. Those leaving the meeting expressed disbelief and outrage at a decision they saw as rigged from the start.

Roger Williams University Law Professor Jared Goldstein, who was in the path of the truck with his teen children, left the morning meeting with a prediction: “Later today the Attorney General will issue a statement in which he’ll say they presented all the facts, they did a serious investigation.”

Goldstein’s prediction was spot on. At a press conference held at his Providence offices later that day, Neronha said almost exactly that.

“I’m not surprised by what the grand jury did,” said Goldstein. “This is how the prosecutors presented the case.”

“They clearly had an agenda,” Jessica Rosner told me as she was leaving the victims meeting in Cranston. “Feel free to drive your truck into a crowd. If you’re an officer, not a problem.”

Never Again Action responded to the announcement by holding a small protest of about 50 people outside the Attorney General’s office after a press conference announcing the null result of the grand jury. In a press release, they said, in part:

“We condemn Neronha and his prosecutors for their handling of this case, and we once again call on Governor Raimondo, the General Assembly, and the Mayor and City Council of Central Falls to do everything in their power to shut this dangerous and immoral facility down, and to prevent its sale to a completely unaccountable out-of-state private prison company.”

Peter Neronha

1b. Running down protesters, a short history

Remember that time the General Assembly considered allowing motorists to run over protesters?

Representative Justin Price (Republican, District 39, Richmond, Exeter, Hopkinton) introduced a bill that would make driving your vehicle into peaceful protesters, as long as you did it carefully, immune from liability for injuries caused. I treated the story pretty lightly then, and I don’t believe any other journalists treated it at all.

Price was reacting to a Black Lives Matter protest that had taken place in 2014, when protesters blocked Route 95. Price was one of the inconvenienced drivers.

During the hearing for his bill, Price said he was upset about people blocking a highway in protest, even as he denied knowing what the protest was about or that he knew that it was mostly people of color blocking the highway. He suggested that George Soros, a figure at the center of many unhinged, antisemitic conspiracy theories, was funding protesters.

Back when Price submitted his bill in the General Assembly, the bill was so out there, so anti-first amendment, so unAmerican, it seemed more like satire than reality. But four months after Price introduced his ill-fated bill, Heather Hyer was run down and killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville.

Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore.

After this week’s news that Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth would not be facing charges for driving his truck into peaceful protesters, the humor is completely gone, even as Price’s original bill feels frighteningly redundant.

Justin Price

1c. Solitary Confinement

Imagine suffering from severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI) and then being shackled and confined to solitary confinement, for days, months or even years. Imagine, being so stressed and desperate that you announce your intention to hurt yourself, only to have the correctional officer spray you with pepper spray, sparing you the trouble.

This isn’t some dystopian science fiction novel or an account from the presumably less enlightened 1950’s.

This is reality, right now, in Rhode Island.

In May 2019, Charlene Liberty, an inmate at the Adult Correctional Institutions, attempted suicide by hanging and self-mutilation. Liberty has been recognized by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC) as suffering from severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI). After being released from psychiatric and intensive care at Kent Hospital, Liberty was immediately placed into solitary confinement, her belly and feet shackled, and monitored by an officer with pepper spray. When she threatened to injure herself, the officer used the spray.

Charlene Liberty is one of several inmates at the ACI suing the RIDOC alleging multiple constitutional violations of the rights of prisoners with SPMI. The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of the plaintiffs by the ACLU National Prison Project, the ACLU of Rhode Island and Disability Rights Rhode Island (DRRI). You can read the class action lawsuit here.

The complaint alleges violations of the plaintiffs’ constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as violations of federal laws barring discrimination against persons with disabilities. The suit seeks sweeping changes in the way that those inmates are treated at the ACI.

“Human beings who are seriously mentally ill, and oftentimes incarcerated for actions arising from such illness, are then subjected, for infractions arising from their mental illness, to the deliberately harmful policy of enforced solitary isolation, removal from any regular human contact, in filthy conditions, with little to no access to even fresh air,” said Morna Murray, Executive Director of DRRI. “There is absolutely no remedial value to this practice whatsoever; it is inhumane and unconscionable.”

Morna Murray

2. Elections 2020

Understanding the existential crisis of climate change, young people are looking towards political solutions.

To that end over 50 young people crammed into a small room on the second floor of AS220 to hear from young, politically active Rhode Islanders who are working to effect positive change by either running for office or running campaigns for their peers. After a short presentation from Georgia Hollister-Isman, the State Director of the Working Families Party and Emma Bouton, an organizer from Sunrise, Sunrise organizer Mara Dolan introduced the five featured guests.

The guests were Tiara Mack, candidate for Rhode Island State Senate District 6, Kat Kerwin, Providence City Councilor Ward 12, Jonathan Acosta, Central Falls City Councilor Ward 1 and candidate for Rhode Island State Senate District 16, Keith Jillette, campaign manager for Woonsocket City Councilor Alex Kithes, and former State Representative Aaron Regunberg. Each guest answered three questions before breaking up into smaller groups to directly answer questions from those in attendance.

“There is a growing group of people who are all moved by progressive ideals,” noted Tiara Mack, “who are willing to fight for $15, who are willing to work on common sense gun control, who are willing to make sure that health care is not just an option but is accessible to every single person in our state, in our country…”

Tiara Mack

3. Science is Real

Dr Victor Pedro was due to get $1M from the Rhode Island General Assembly to fund his alternative medicine technique, “Cortical Integrated Therapy (CIT). Fortunately, a reporter caught that and public outcry killed the giveaway.

Pedro convinced legislative leaders, like House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, that his new treatment was creating wonders. But Pedro couldn’t convince actual medical researchers or the federal government, because the technique has never been exposed to any kind of peer review. Pedro’s treatment is performed by one doctor in the world: Pedro.

Melissa Jenkins, PhD, a Neuropsychologist, wrote here about how science becomes science and how medical techniques become accepted. It’s a process that Speaker Mattiello is obviously unfamiliar with, but that’s understandable, says Jenkins.

“What is not understandable is why – in a state hosting one of the best medical schools in the country, the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University – they would not seek expert advice on these issues,” writes Jenkins. “When the budget item was exposed, two dozen medical experts (neurologists, psychiatrists, and neuropsychologists) immediately denounced funding the non-evidence-based technique. Why weren’t they asked?

“I urge the General Assembly to let the peer review process vet innovative ideas rather than subvert this process in future budgets. Conventional and unconventional innovations in medicine are frequent, and welcome, but they must be scientifically sound and responsibly evaluated. Legislative overrides to that process, especially when they might be motivated by cronyism, campaign donations, lobbying contracts, or anything other than scientific merit, are bad medicine.”

Victor Pedro

4. Education Funding Formulas

Do you have trouble understanding the Rhode Island schools funding formula? So do I. That’s why I attended the first meeting of a special legislative committee to review it. Here’s all the video and slides from the hearing, as well as my attempt to understand it.

5. Guns

  • Lily Gordon reflects on the one year anniversary of the terrible Tree of Life Synagogue shooting that claimed 11 lives in Pittsburgh.
  • The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence (RICAGV) is encouraged by the recall results in Tiverton, in which Town Council President Robert Coulter and Town Council Vice President Justin Katz were removed from office. The RICAGV notes that the two councilors led the effort to pass a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution in the town.

6. My TEDx Talk

I gave a TEDx Talk. I reflect some on that experience here, where you can read the text of my talk, or you can watch it right here:

7. Greg Gerritt


9. The Bartholomewtown Podcast

10. College Hill Independent

11. ConvergenceRI

As the state prepares to take over the Providence Public School District on November 1, the nitty-gritty around how much the move will cost, who will pay for it, what are the benchmarks for success, and how long the turn around will take remain in largely unmapped, uncharted territories…

12. ecoRI

13. The RI NOW Haunted House of Political Horrors

I’ll be judging the costume contest at the RI NOW Haunted House of Political Horrors fundraiser. Categories are Best Feminist costume, Best Rhode Island costume, and Best Overall costume. Dress up and come help support RI NOW!

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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 nearly a decade.

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