Central Falls lawmakers introduce legislation to shut down the Wyatt

“Our experimentation with private prisons has been a failure,” said Representative Giraldo. “Not only do private prisons fail to provide the substantial savings we were promised, but they provide fewer correctional services while providing a greater risk to inmates and staff.”

Published on March 5, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

Lawmakers representing Central Falls introduced legislation this week that, if passed, would ultimately close down the Wyatt Detention Center. On Friday, Rhode Island Senator Jonathan Acosta (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls) and Representative Joshua Giraldo (Democrat, District 56, Central Falls) held a press conference outside the Wyatt to introduce their legislation, standing alongside community organizers from AMOR (Alliance Mobilizing Our Resistance) and Never Again Action Rhode Island.

In all, the lawmakers introduced four bills:

H5749 / S0399) would repeal the Municipal Detention Facility Corporations law and prohibit the operation of private detention facilities and private public partnerships within the state. Those currently in operation, such as the Wyatt, could continue to do so until December 31, 2028.

“Our experimentation with private prisons has been a failure,” said Representative Giraldo. “Not only do private prisons fail to provide the substantial savings we were promised, but they provide fewer correctional services while providing a greater risk to inmates and staff.”

Joshua Giraldo

The act would further prohibit the housing of Rhode Island prisoners in other states as well as holding out-of-state prisoners in Rhode Island facilities.

“Justice shouldn’t be a moneymaking endeavor,” said Senator Acosta. “We would be horrified if judges were paid on commission, based on the number of people they convicted, so why would we be OK with a prison system that benefits from higher numbers of incarcerations? Justice should never be dispensed with one eye looking at a profit margin.”

Jonathan Acosta

The second bill (H5750, S0400) would prohibit contracts with private, for-profit prison facilities or with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“ICE detainees in Rhode Island have been treated unfairly, they’ve been exposed to COVID, and have been denied the most basic rights that are afforded to even the most notorious criminals,” said Representative Giraldo. “We refer to prisons as ‘correctional facilities,’ but with ICE detainees, there’s nothing to correct. It’s time to end the heinous practice of imprisoning these people in a private prison.”

The Wyatt Detention Center entered into a contract with ICE from 2005 to 2008 when a detainee from China died while in the prison’s custody. The ICE contract was terminated, but began anew in January 2019.

“Rhode Island shouldn’t be in the business of incarcerating immigrants,” said Senator Acosta. “These people are being treated as though they are among the worst of our criminals, when their only crime is their desire to become Americans.”

The third bill (2021-H 5751, 2021-S 0394) would provide for a safety inspection of the Wyatt Detention Facility twice a year.

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The fourth bill (2021-H 5776, 2021-S 0248) would prohibit financial institutions from investing in private detention centers or continuing to invest with any institution, company or subsidiary of a company that owns or contracts with a government entity to manage or run a prison.

Senator Acosta:

Representative Giraldo:

The House bills have been referred to the House Committee on State Government and Elections, with the exception of H5776, which has been referred to the House Corporations Committee, while the Senate bills have been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The recent efforts to close the Wyatt Detention Facility and the stream of protests against the facility began in 2019 when the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation (CFDFC) voted to sign a contract with ICE to detain undocumented immigrants.

When the City of Central Falls took steps to cancel the contract with ICE and shut down the prison, they found themselves in a lawsuit with the bondholders who financed the Wyatt, who were seeking to make a profit from their investment in the human misery of incarceration.

The press conference was emceed by David Veliz, executive director of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition.

David Veliz

“We need to take all steps to shut down the Wyatt, and that is why we are here today to support this effort.,” said Jasmina De Leon Gill AMOR Case Manager who is also studying immigration law. “As a coalition that includes and works with people that were previously incarcerated or are currently behind bars, AMOR wholeheartedly denounces all cages and forms of incarceration.”

“In 1991, leaders in Central Falls were sold a lie,” said Stephanie Gonzalez, a Roger Williams University law student and a former Central Falls City Councilor. “They were convinced that building a detention facility was the solution to the financial distress the City was facing. On the contrary, the City’s financial problems were not solved by putting a prison within its borders because nothing good comes from incarcerating people for profit.

“Instead we have subjected children to grow up playing and normalizing a prison near their football, soccer, and baseball field,” continued Gonzalez. “We have subjected our own residents to be jailed because of their immigration status. In fact, In 2008, The New York Times published an article about the Wyatt titled “City of Immigrants Jails its Own.” The city’s own residents told stories about how people, their neighbors, their family members started disappearing only to later find out they’d been held at Wyatt. We, and I say we because it is incumbent on all of us to check our moral compasses, must work to lessen our deference to the carceral state.

“The creation of the Wyatt was enabled by legislation that was supported by legislators from across the state who were all too comfortable opening a prison in the most economically disenfranchised community in our state. It is not violence in its traditionally understood form, but it is violence nonetheless.

“But we have an opportunity to change that through the package introduced by Representative Giraldo and Senator Acosta. It is time that we hold Wyatt accountable for the human deaths that have occured on its watch and ensure that we hold the facility to high health standards for the duration of its existence.

“But the underlying injustice continues to be incarceration, and especially incarceration for profit, aided and enabled by financial institutions, and business leaders who see dollar signs and not human beings. This means that we must prevent financial institutions who do business with the state from also engaging in incarceration for profit.

“But ultimately, we must set the state on a path where for profit prisons are eliminated in the foreseeable future and are prevented from ever existing again in our state.”

“Our entire immigration system in the United States has historically been set up to privilege and prioritize immigrants who look like me,” said Sasha Berkoff, an organizer with Never Again Rhode Island, “as opposed to immigrants who are detained within the Wyatt Detention Center.”

Jessica Vega, Central Falls City Council President, was the last speaker at the event.

“We are here to remind the criminal justice system in the State of Rhode Island that we do not want anymore prisons or detention centers in our state,” said Council President Vega, who was appearing in her capacity as a resident of Central Falls. “We can reimagine our society… around new policies that are centered on human rights and equity..”

Senator Acosta and Representative Giraldo then took questions from the press:

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