CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — A captain at a detention center here was placed on leave Thursday after he allegedly drove his pickup truck into a crowd and injured several people who were protesting the prison’s practice of holding detainees for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
People scrambled and screamed as Captain Thomas Woodworth allegedly honked his horn around 10 p.m. and drove at the group blocking the staff parking lot at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center.
Several people said they were injured when the truck struck them — and when other correctional officers used pepper spray on the protesters to get them away from the vehicle and let the driver out. Five people went to the hospital, including one man who suffered a broken leg and internal injuries, organizers said.
“It was shocking and horrifying,” said filmmaker Sam Eilertsen, a protester and volunteer for Never Again Action, who captured the scene on video.
“I was panicking and thought, ‘Am I filming the next Heather Heyer moment?’” he said, referring to the woman who died after a man drove into a crowd protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., two years ago.
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said his office and the State Police are investigating the incident. He called for restraint as the investigation proceeded.
“Once we have a full understanding of the relevant facts, we will determine how to proceed,” Neronha said in a statement. “Peaceful protest is a fundamental right of all Americans; it is unfortunate last night’s situation unfolded as it did.”
Woodworth was placed on administrative leave Thursday while the warden, Daniel Martin, conducts an internal investigation, according to a Wyatt spokesman.
Organizers said the most seriously injured was Jerry Belair, president of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, who suffered a broken leg and internal injuries after being hit by the truck.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo said she was outraged by the assault on protesters.
“Our state and our nation were built on the idea that everyone has a right to express their opinion publicly and peacefully,’’ she said in a statement.
The governor also lashed out at the Trump administration’s immigration policies, which prompted Never Again is Now, an organization of Jewish activists to protest what they call “concentration camps” used by ICE to detain immigrants.
“President Trump’s immigration policies are immoral, and these Rhode Islanders were exercising their constitutional right to protest,’’ Raimondo said.
The protest outside the Wyatt was a part of a nationwide series of demonstrations coordinated by Never Again Is Now. It was also the second demonstration in a month outside Wyatt, a for-profit prison that accepts ICE detainees, in a city with a large immigrant population.
An ICE spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.
Wyatt is run by the quasi-public Central Falls Detention Facility Corp., with a board of directors appointed by the mayor.
In January, the warden signed an agreement to house ICE detainees; the facility began receiving them in March. The board of directors suspended the decision a month later, but reinstated the agreement after a court order. Last month, there were 139 detainees in ICE custody being housed at the prison, according to minutes from the July 8 board meeting.
The prison has a troubled history with ICE detainees. In 2008, ICE withdrew its detainees after the death of a Chinese detainee, 34-year-old Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng, in its custody. Ng had terminal liver cancer and a broken back, but was mocked and went untreated by staff at Wyatt.
Jared A. Goldstein, a constitutional law professor at Roger Williams University, attended the first Wyatt protest on July 2. He and 17 others were arrested after they blocked one of the lots, he said.
“It’s important to express our First Amendment right to tell government this isn’t right, that a detention facility like Wyatt has no place in our community, and this president’s immigration policies are abhorrent,” Goldstein said.
He and his wife, Amy, and their two teenagers also attended Wednesday’s protest. For three hours, they said, they chanted and sang at the largely peaceful demonstration.
Central Falls police officers circled by, but didn’t interact with the protesters, except to tell them to stay out of the street, organizers said.
The protesters first blocked the two main entrances to the facility, then shifted to the employee parking lot entrances around 9 p.m., “to keep the action going,” said Amy Anthony, a spokeswoman for Never Again Action.
One driver did try to leave the parking lot, but was blocked by the protesters, Anthony said. The driver was advised by police to instead get a ride, she said.
Goldstein was with his children at the entrance when around 10 p.m., a black pickup swerved toward them. “People moved out of the way, because he got really close,” he said. “Then, he hit the gas again.”
Anthony was across the street when she heard screams. The truck “went right through the people,” she said. “Some jumped out of the way, and some jumped up to stop the truck.”
As people surrounded the truck, chanting, “Shame on you! The whole world is watching!” the driver used his police radio, Goldstein said.
In moments, nearly a dozen correctional officers emerged, used pepper spray to disperse the crowd and let the driver out.
“It was terrifying,” Goldstein said. “We were unarmed, peaceful protesters, and this is how they decide to deal with people blocking the parking lot — drive a truck into us and use pepper spray.”
Central Falls police officers arrived, but organizers said the police didn’t talk to witnesses or appear to question Woodworth or the other correctional officers.
The scene — captured on video by Eilertsen and others — rapidly circulated on social media and prompted a furious response.
The Never Again protesters said they were not deterred.
“If anything, this just goes to show what kind of violence there is in the system, if this officer would do this in public with people recording him,” Anthony said. “It’s not hard to imagine what’s happening behind the walls.“
An earlier version of this story misstated the financial structure of the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center. It is a non-profit prison, run by the quasi-public Central Falls Detention Facility Corp.