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Group calls on R.I. to ban private prisons as protests over Wyatt emerge

The Wyatt detention center is a 770-bed jail in Central Falls. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)Barry Chin/Globe Staff

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — An activist group on Thursday urged the state to quickly ban private prisons, after the Globe disclosed a document raising the prospect of a sale of the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility.

“We want Governor Raimondo and other officials to commit immediately to passing legislation that is going to keep private prisons out of Rhode Island,” said Amy Anthony, a spokeswoman for the Jewish activist group Never Again Action Rhode Island. “The document shows that bondholders are set on selling and privatizing the prison to maximize their profits.”

The board overseeing Wyatt will discuss on Friday a proposed “forbearance agreement” that would lock in a contract to continue holding Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, while also exploring options such as selling the 770-bed prison.


Wyatt refused to release the document, but the Globe obtained a copy of the proposal, which calls for Wyatt to “evaluate strategic alternatives” and authorizes the warden 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, Management & Training Corp., and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America).

Wyatt spokesman Christopher Hunter said the proposed forbearance agreement will be discussed during Friday’s board meeting, but “there are no negotiations going on regarding a sale of the Wyatt.”

A former state representative, Aaron Regunberg, who is a volunteer organizer for Never Again Action Rhode Island, said the Globe report underscored concerns that “they are planning to streamline the sale of this Rhode Island institution to one of these national for-profit prison chains.”

The proposed forbearance agreement also confirmed the group’s fear that Wyatt plans to “double down” on its contract to house ICE detainees, Regunberg said.


And the document “makes it completely explicit that the entire purpose of this prison is to generate profits and money for the bondholders,” he said.

“It’s clear that we need state leaders to step up,” Regunberg said. “This is the time for emergency action to pass legislation banning the operation of for-profit prisons in Rhode Island.”

State Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, said she is looking into what form legislation would take to prevent private prisons in Rhode Island. “I don’t think private prisons are appropriate,” she said. “People should not be deriving profit off this core state function.”

Yet, selling the prison was one of the recommendations made in 2012 by the Special Joint Legislative Commission on the Wyatt Detention Facility.

The commission was intended to study the finances and operation of the troubled prison, in the heart of Central Falls. The 1.3-square-mile city of nearly 20,000 people had just tumbled into bankruptcy. Although the prison was established under state law as a way to help boost the beleaguered city, it failed to meet expectations.

The prison opened in 1993 with 302 beds, and the money trickled in at first. From 1994 through 2008, the City of Central Falls received a total of $5.3 million from the facility. In 2009, Wyatt paid another $134,358.

Then the spigot all but dried up.

Senator Elizabeth A. Crowley and Representative Agostinho F. Silva, Central Falls Democrats who led the 2012 commission, found the prison was burdened with debt and mismanagement. Among their recommendations: Sell Wyatt and start collecting property taxes.


That’s the reason Crowley said she’d be happy to see Wyatt sold. “It was supposed to be an economic engine for the city,” she said Thursday. “It has not been. It’s been like an anchor on the city, because it has not paid its fair share.”

Crowley said Wyatt has veered from its original purpose to hold federal detainees who couldn’t make bond. It took on debt to expand. It stopped paying the city. And now, it’s taking in detainees for ICE in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” program.

Crowley said she sides with the activists in opposing holding these detainees for ICE. “These people are not murderers, they’re not rapists, they’re just trying to make the American opportunity,” she said.

She likened Wyatt to a Trojan horse that came into the city under the guise of helping it but has become a burden.

While protesters have been demonstrating in Central Falls, another group has been protesting against Wyatt’s ICE detentions halfway across the country in Kansas City, Mo. — home of UMB Bank, the $7 billion bank holding company that is suing the city on behalf of bondholders.

Organizers said nearly 50 people turned out Sept. 1 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, cofounded by the late UMB Financial Corp. chairman R. Crosby Kemper Jr. and his wife. The museum board includes Kemper’s son, Mariner Kemper, UMB’s current chairman and CEO.


Carmen Moreno, who organized the protest along with other Latino artists in Kansas City, said the group protested UMB’s decision to sue Central Falls to keep ICE detainees at Wyatt. “Tell Mariner Kemper and UMB Bank to stop the exploitation of our community,” a protest sign read.

Moreno said the museum had recently hosted a block party with taco trucks, low-rider cars, and a showing of “Coco,” a movie inspired by a Mexican holiday — which she called “really hypocritical,” given UMB’s role in suing to keep ICE detainees at Wyatt.

In response, Mariner Kemper issued a statement:

“Unfortunately, there has been significant misrepresentation of our role in this situation due to well-intentioned, but inaccurate, activist activity. In this role, we do not represent the facility or their decisions — furthermore, we took on this business before the facility held any ICE detainees.”

Kemper said UMB represents the bondholders who provided money for the Rhode Island facility to be built.

“As such, we are legally required to act at the bondholders’ direction, which resulted in the lawsuit,” he said.

“This lawsuit is not politically based, but rather was filed to ensure the bondholders’ financial investment is recouped. The city has the option to pay off the bond at any time, which would eliminate the lawsuit, and by extension, the bondholders’ and UMB’s involvement.”

The Kansas City protest organizers also issued a statement:

“UMB could resign as bond trustee if it wanted to at any time. Instead, UMB made a choice to continue to provide corporate trust services for bondholders of the Wyatt detention facility, and went so far as to file a lawsuit to force the facility to contract with ICE.”


The protesters said they understand UMB assumed a legal obligation to maximize returns for Wyatt’s investors. “However, it is within UMB’s power to make a clear moral choice that it does not want to involve itself in business that negatively affects human rights,” they said. “Instead, UMB chose to elevate the interests of creditors over human rights — generating fees for doing so in the process.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Amanda Milkovits can be reached