CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — With sunlight glinting off razor wire behind them, state lawmakers from Central Falls stood outside the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility on Friday, detailing bills aimed at halting future contracts to hold immigration detainees there and closing Wyatt by 2028.
The 770-bed detention center, run by a quasi-public corporation, received national attention in 2019 when a correctional officer drove a truck at protesters and other officers pepper-sprayed a group that was objecting to Wyatt’s holding of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.
Two newly elected Democratic legislators – Senator Jonathon Acosta, a former Central Falls councilman, and Representative Joshua J. Giraldo, who was chief of staff for former Mayor James A. Diossa – have introduced a package of four bills related to Wyatt.
“We are here today in an attempt to right the wrongs of our predecessors and to do right by our community,” Giraldo said. “Rhode Island needs to get out of the business of immigration enforcement. Our history in that area has been a history of mistreatment, dangerous conditions, poor oversight, and even death.”
Acosta framed the legislation as part of an attempt to address larger issues related to the war on drugs and mass incarceration.
“It’s not ironic – I think it’s actually very telling – that in the poorest city in the smallest state in the United States of America there is a large detention facility,” he said. “We need to implement reforms that dismantle the system that we created – that dismantle the perverse profit incentive in putting people behind bars.”
Stephanie Gonzalez, a former Central Falls City Council member who is married to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, said Wyatt has failed to deliver on the promise of providing a source of funding for this cash-strapped, majority-Latino city of 19,500 people.
“In 1991, leaders in Central Falls were sold a lie,” Gonzalez said. “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.”
She said that instead of enriching the city, Wyatt forced children to grow up while playing soccer and baseball on fields across the street from the detention center and rows of razor wire. And, she said, “We have subjected our own residents to being jailed because of their immigration status.”
Gonzalez, who was born and raised in Central Falls, recalled visiting a family member detained at Wyatt, and she cited a 2008 New York Times article headlined “City of Immigrants Fills Jail Cells With Its Own.”
Wyatt’s creation was enabled by legislation supported by lawmakers from across Rhode Island who favored opening a prison in the state’s poorest city, Gonzalez said. “It is not violence in its traditionally understood form,” she said. “But it is violence nonetheless.”
Now, Gonzalez said, lawmakers from across Rhode Island have an opportunity to change that reality by supporting the bills introduced by Acosta and Giraldo.
One bill would “repeal municipal detention facility corporations and prohibit the operation of private detention facilities and private public partnerships within the state” while allowing existing operations such as Wyatt to continue through Dec. 31, 2028.
A second bill would “prohibit contracts with private, for-profit, prison facilities or with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
A third bill 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.”
A fourth bill would “provide for a safety inspection of the Wyatt Detention Facility twice a year.”
Christopher Hunter, a spokesman for Wyatt, declined to comment on the proposed legislation.
As of Feb. 4, Wyatt was at 70 percent of capacity with 541 detainees, including 45 ICE detainees, according to the most recent status report filed with the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island.