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Wyatt board approves forbearance agreement that effectively cedes control of prison to bondholders



If ICE came to you tomorrow and said ‘We need to start building gas chambers and crematoria,’ you can’t say ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but we have to let you do that because that’s what it’s going to take to make this place profitable,'” said Professor of law at Roger Williams University and Never Again Action member Jared Goldstein.

Last night the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation (CFDFC or Wyatt Board), under the leadership of newly elected Chair James Lombardi III, voted to approve a forbearance agreement with the facility’s bond holders that will have far reaching consequences for the future of the for-profit prison.

[Note that Lombardi denied that the prison is for-profit, saying in his opening comments that “[t]he Wyatt Detention Facility is a non-profit, quasi-public facility created by Statute,” but in the same statement Lombardi admitted that the “Wyatt is an economic generator for Central Falls and the State of Rhode Island” and that “[w]e need to pay off our bondholders.” In other words, the Wyatt is “non-profit” merely by some legalese phrasing, and by the fact that the Wyatt, as an unsuccessful business, is seemingly incapable of making a profit.]

The forbearance agreement, slightly and cosmetically revised since the last time the board took up the issue, is the product of negotiations between the Board’s lawyers and lawyers for UMB Bank, representing the bondholders, done under the weight of a $130M lawsuit currently in Federal Court, brought by the bondholders.

The forbearance agreement, approved by all four members of the Board, prevents the Wyatt from terminating its agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), establishes a process should the bondholders decide to sell the facility, denies the City of Central Falls any meaningful role in the oversight or management of the facility, and re-emphasizes the board’s obligation to maximize value to bondholders over any of its obligations to the people of Central Falls or Rhode Island.

[Central Falls Council Vice President Agostinho Silva is the fifth member of the Wyatt Board, but has recused himself from all votes on the Wyatt since at least May.]

Herman Yip, Gary Berdugo, Wilder Arboleda and James Lombardi III

Lombardi suggested that voting for the forbearance agreement was unavoidable. Addressing the over 130 people, mostly representing Never Again Action, a Jewish immigration reform group in attendance to oppose the agreement, Lombardi said, “Many of the things that people are here to object to are beyond our control and although we want to hear your objections, there is nothing we can do to change federal immigration policy or the federal court order we are subject to.”

While the vote was made, those in attendance, save a very few, rose from their seats and turned their backs on then board, with cries of “Shame!’ for every yes vote. Then the group filed out of the room, to hold a press conference outdoors in the drizzling rain, while inside the Wyatt Board continued their meeting. The Board elected to go into executive session to discuss the UMB Bank lawsuit, but sealed the minutes of that meeting afterwards.

Below is all the video from the hearing until Never Again Action left the room, followed by the press conference held by Never Action Action outside the Wyatt. The first order of business was electing James Lombardi to the position of Chair and board member Wilder Arboleda as Vice-Chair. The Wyatt describes Lombardi as “an Attorney and Certified Public Accountant with a strong background in budgeting, finance, debt workouts, and governance issues. He has an extensive track record of community engagement, including providing pro-bono legal and accounting services.” He was nominated by Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and approved by the Central Falls City Council.

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“I want to welcome everyone to this public meeting of the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation,” said Lombardi. “I want to thank Mayor Diossa, the Central Falls City Council and this Board to have the confidence to elect me as Chairman. I would like to be clear that this board is made up of people that are responsible to the community and deeply care about all of the detainees that are housed in this facility. We are not a private for profit Corporation. The Wyatt Detention Facility is a non-profit, quasi-public facility created by Statute.

“I understand that some of you want the Wyatt shut down and I will tell you that is simply not an option. We are under court order to operate and take ICE detainees.

“Some of you would like to disrupt the board and possibly frustrate us enough to quit or not hold public meetings, I would argue this is a big mistake. This board is accountable to the public and if we are not here, a trustee in receivership will operate this facility without any public input. Public input is something we support and encourage.

“Many of the things that people are here to object to are beyond our control and although we want to hear your objections, there is nothing we can do to change federal immigration policy or the federal court order we are subject to.

“I have personally toured the facility with Warden Martin, and can assure you that all detainees are being treated humanely, and have access to all of the legal, health care, and religious services they are required to be afforded.

“We have ideas on how to restructure the Wyatt and we will need support from you to accomplish this new vision. One of the only ways we see a resolution to this situation is with help from all parties. We need to pay off our bondholders and they need to take less than the outstanding amount that they are due. We will need Federal, State, or City help to back the floating of a bond for the fair market value of this facility. Once we establish a positive cash flow, we can then be more selective on detainees and restructure the Wyatt. Wyatt is an economic generator for Central Falls and the State of Rhode Island. It provides a much needed service to allow detainees’ access to the Rhode Island Federal Courts. It employs 271 staff with quality jobs.

“We hope that on all sides there is not another occurrence like what happened on August 14th. We welcome your public comment and support your right to protest. However, we ask that everyone please remain respectful and refrain from intentionally disrupting this public board meeting. We further ask that your peaceful protests do not interfere with the operation of this detention facility. We have a highly qualified Warden and management. We have highly trained correctional staff who understand the rights of the detainees they are entrusted to supervise and insure they have these rights met. I was impressed with the operations when I toured the facility.

“Following a 15 minute public comment period, the board will be discussing a forbearance agreement. There will be a vote on the forbearance agreement this evening up or down.

“With that, I would like to open the floor to public comment.”

To his credit, Lombardi did not strictly enforce the 15 minute public comment time period he had established. Public comment lasted about 30 minutes, and all who expressed an interest in doing so were allowed to speak.

“We’re back because this agreement is still, substantively, a horrifying document. It reads like a good PR person looked it over to make some stylistic changes, but none of its inhumane elements have been materially changed,” said Aaron Regunberg, a member of Never Again Action and a spokesperson for the group.

Former Central Falls councilwoman Stephanie Gonzalez read testimonies from ICE detainees throughout the United States, including one testimony from a former ICE detainee at the Wyatt who reported that the guards there had refused to provide medical treatment to a fellow inmate.

“Your actions today have a direct impact on human lives. As you weigh the advice of your lawyers to do what’s best for the Wyatt, I hope you weigh these testimonies and remember that you are human beings first, and you owe a duty to your fellow human beings,” Gonzalez said.

After Gonzalez others read testimony from Holocaust survivors and people, including children, who have been held in ICE detention centers, highlighting the parallels between history and today.

“You’ll excuse me if I don’t believe your tour was representative of daily conditions at the Wyatt,” said Sy Gitin, addressing Lombardi. “Propaganda for inspections is a tactic that has been used both in the Holocaust and ICE detention alike.”

Central Falls City Council member Jonathan Acosta pointed out the many ways in which the forbearance agreement cedes power to the bondholders. “As you think about your vote today,” said Acosta, “I want you to realize that you’re turning yourselves into fucking puppets. I understand that the Chairman made a point about civility and respect, and I don’t mean disrespect by that comment. What I will say is that the literature on Rhode Island has shown that… the grassroots movement around change has always left out the most marginalized and the most vulnerable members of the community. And those members are told to be civil, to be respectful, while many of them are literally trampled over by trucks…”

More speakers:

Lombardi warned the speakers that they are over time.

“Mr Chairman, you started your comments saying that we have no option, there is no option to shut down the Wyatt. There is no option but to hold ICE detainees. And there’s no option but to do everything you can to make the Wyatt profitable,” said Professor of law at Roger Williams University and Never Again Action member Jared Goldstein. “I have to believe that that’s not the case. The people of Rhode Island have a Democracy. You’re appointed here to take action and you can vote. The people of Rhode Island have not ceased to be their own ruler. We have a choice. We do not have to have a facility like this in Rhode Island. We have a choice.”

Goldstein urged the board members to vote “no” on the forbearance agreement.

“If ICE came to you tomorrow and said ‘We need to start building gas chambers and crematoria,’ you can’t say ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but we have to let you do that because that’s what it’s going to take to make this place profitable.'”

Lombardi thanked the speakers and those in attendance “for being civil” and said the “comments were fair.” He then moved on to the approval of the minutes from previous Board minutes.

Lombardi then led the Board to approve the forbearance agreement, effectively ceding control of the Wyatt to the bondholders.

“This agreement makes clear that the only interest of the Wyatt and its board is to promote the financial interests of out-of-state investors,” said Goldstein, outside. “The Wyatt can’t consider the morality or abusive nature of immigrant detention. It doesn’t matter what ICE is doing. It doesn’t matter that they’re separating children from their parents or holding children in cages. If it makes money for the bondholders, the Wyatt board has just agreed that they have to do it.

“The agreement also makes clear that the bondholders want to sell the Wyatt to a private prison as soon as possible. Governor Gina Raimondo recently stated that she would support a ban on private prisons in Rhode Island. Never Again Action now turns its focus to state legislators, urging them to draft and pass legislation that would ban private prisons in the state.”

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, invoked the death of 34-year-old Jason Ng, an ICE detainee who died at the Wyatt 11 years ago as a result of “horrible abuse and neglect.” Shortly after Ng’s death, the Wyatt cancelled its contract with ICE, but it was reinstated earlier this year.

“We will not let Jason Ng’s death be in vain. We will, as soon as we can, take the steps necessary, whether it’s by legislation or other means, to keep ICE out of Central Falls,” Brown said.

“If UMB Bank or anyone else involved with this ICE detention facility thinks this protest is just a passing headache, you are gravely mistaken,” Regunberg said. “So long as your business model is to help make possible Donald Trump’s war on immigrants, we will be coming back here to shut down your business. Because we know, our parents and grandparents know, our families and friends who died in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and elsewhere, we know what is possible if we don’t keep coming back here.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.