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CENTRAL FALLS — The board overseeing the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility is poised to consider an agreement that would lock in a contract to continue holding US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees while also exploring the prospect of the eventual sale of the Central Falls prison, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by the Globe.
The 14-page document sets out a series of “transaction milestones” and authorizes the warden of Wyatt to “provide confidential information about the corporation to parties considering a sale, investment, or other affiliation with the corporation.”
Wyatt, a nonprofit prison run by a quasi-public corporation, had previously approved an agreement saying confidential information could be provided to three of the nation’s biggest private prison companies — GEO Group Inc., Management & Training Corporation, and CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America).
The proposed “forbearance agreement” would also require the 770-bed prison to “maintain a monthly average daily population” of no fewer than 625 inmates. And it would call for Wyatt to “maintain and perform in compliance with” a contract expanding the use of Wyatt to include ICE detainees.
While it’s unclear if any of the prison companies are interested in Wyatt, a sale would represent a dramatic shift for the 26-year-old prison, which was created as a way to bolster the cash-strapped square-mile city of Central Falls but that has turned into a source of frustration, litigation, and outrage.
Wyatt has been under fire since earlier this year when it came to light that the warden had signed an addendum to a US Marshals Service contract to house ICE detainees.
That revelation prompted protests, and on April 5 the Wyatt board suspended the ICE addendum and told the warden to return the immigrant detainees. Five days later, the trustee of the bondholders for the facility, UMB Bank, filed a lawsuit against the board and Central Falls in US District Court in Providence.
On April 26, a judge granted a preliminary injunction, stopping the board from suspending the ICE addendum and from removing the ICE detainees. The judge also appointed a “board monitor” to watch for activities that could affect Wyatt’s revenue.
Jared A. Goldstein, a Roger Williams University School of Law professor who attended the protests, said the proposed agreement would create a prison that’s outside of public control. And that should alarm Rhode Islanders, he said.
The agreement cuts out any oversight by the City of Central Falls — even though state law established the prison as a quasi-public agency to benefit the city, he said.
“The whole purpose of Wyatt was to make money for the city, but now the city is the enemy,” Goldstein said. “Now, it’s to make money for the private bondholders. It’s just, ‘We’re going to hold as many prisoners as we can to make money for our investors.’ The bondholders want nobody in Rhode Island to have any authority to stop it.”
The agreement tees up the prison for a sale, he said.
“It’s clear that the bondholders are trying to sell Wyatt as soon as possible,” Goldstein said after reviewing the draft document. “They’re trying to go private as soon as they can. This agreement makes clear they want to get moving, before anyone tries to stop them.”
A spokesman for Governor Gina Raimondo said she hasn’t seen the proposed forbearance agreement.
“Wyatt’s current governance structure was established by the General Assembly in the early 1990s, and the facility has operated this way for almost 30 years,” press secretary Josh Block said. “Reforming that structure is a complicated question with significant implications for the City of Central Falls and the facility’s bondholders.”
Razor-wire fencing surrounds the prison, which sits in the middle of Central Falls, a largely immigrant city. The facility holds detainees of US Marshals, the Navy, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, and, this year, detainees picked up in the Trump administration’s “Southern Border Zero Tolerance Initiative.”
For Mayor James A. Diossa, whose father crossed the Mexican border at 18 to escape violence in Colombia, this Trump policy is personal.
Wyatt had held ICE detainees before, and Diossa said he knew the practice would return. He assumed it would be people accused of violent crimes — not those seeking asylum. Like his father.
“I didn’t know it would be the folks of zero tolerance,” Diossa said. “I’ve taken strong stands against this policy. It’s harsh. It’s brutal. The family separation is detrimental. . . . It’s just a sad time in our history.”
The mayor said his outrage is compounded by Wyatt’s failure to meet one of its main original goals — bolstering city finances.
Wyatt hasn’t contributed regular payments for years. Before 2009, it was averaging about $350,000 a year in payments, city officials say, but since 2009, it has made only a couple of annual payments. And Diossa said he doesn’t even include Wyatt revenue in the city’s $18 million budget anymore.
The board members he’s appointed have given a grim assessment of Wyatt. “They say this facility has too much debt,” Diossa said. “I don’t think it can survive.”
He supports court-appointed receivership but is opposed to turning it into a private prison. “To make profits off human misery is [something] I stand against,” he said. “I agree if someone commits a crime, they should be locked up.”
However, he said, “private corporations sustain themselves by making sure the beds are filled. If the beds are not filled, how far are they going to go?”
Roger Williams University criminal justice professor Christopher Menton said private prisons lack the accountability inherent in public prison systems. That oversight is especially important in corrections, which is “opaque enough for public institutions,” he said.
In private prisons, the wages are lower and the pressure is on to make money for investors, Menton said. The incentives are to do less and maximize profits, he said, meaning cutting costs on resources: food, cleanliness, and safety.
In 2005, the Wyatt corporation issued more than $106 million in bonds for an expansion of the prison. The outstanding principal is $97 million and the accrued interest is $34 million. In the proposed forbearance agreement, the bond trustee agrees not to “exercise further remedies” for failure to make debt service payments.
Wyatt spokesman Christopher Hunter declined to give the Globe a copy of the agreement, saying the document is “in draft form and has not been submitted at a public meeting yet. You can get a copy when the board votes on it.”
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, disagreed. “Under that reasoning, you could declare anything a draft until it’s voted on. This is the version that is going to be voted on,” he said. “The public should have an opportunity to comment on that version.”
The agreement obtained by the Globe appears to lay out a timeline for Wyatt to “use its best efforts to cooperate with the bond trustee to evaluate a potential debt refinancing, affiliation or strategic transaction,” setting out a series of “transaction milestones.” It would:
Authorize the warden to enter into nondisclosure agreements to “provide confidential information about the corporation to parties considering a sale, investment or other affiliation with the corporation.”
Require Wyatt to hire an investment banking firm, within 14 days of a request by the bond trustee, “to assist the corporation in preparing, presenting, and if applicable, implementing a proposed transaction.”
Require the firm to give the trustee informational materials “that may be distributed to potential parties considering a transaction.”
Require Wyatt to cooperate fully with the financial consulting firm in “making information and site visits available to potential purchasers/affiliation partners.”
The board had planned to discuss and potentially vote on a “forbearance agreement” with Wyatt’s bondholders at a meeting scheduled for Monday. But with the Jewish activist group Never Again Action planning to protest, the board postponed the meeting to accommodate the crowd. It was rescheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, which protesters noted coincides with Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that begins just before sundown on Fridays.
The Wyatt board is scheduled to discuss the forbearance agreement in the gymnasium of the Wyatt training building at 935 High St., Central Falls.