CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Chanting “Which side are you on?”, more than 250 protesters overwhelmed Friday’s meeting of the board overseeing the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility.
With songs, speeches and even an impromptu Shabbat service, the activists prevented discussion of a proposed “forbearance agreement” to continue holding detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and set up a process for a potential sale of the 770-bed prison.
Even so, the board is scheduled for a vote on the proposal at 5:30 p.m. Monday. It’s the only item on the agenda.
Most of the protesters were with Never Again Action Rhode Island, a Jewish activist group that is part of a national movement protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policy and the separation of families.
One activist after another urged the board to reject the proposed agreement.
Jared A. Goldstein, an associate dean at the Roger Williams University School of Law who has protested at the prison, said Wyatt is “a public institution” created by the people of Rhode Island and Central Falls.
“Board members, you are here as public servants to work for the benefit of the people of Rhode Island,” he said. “The agreement you’re considering tonight would betray the public trust that you’re here to serve.”
“By voting for this agreement, you would dedicate yourself to maximize profits for the investors, paid for with the bodies of our brothers and sisters,” Goldstein said. “Do not sell your souls for someone else’s greed.”
Wyatt is a nonprofit prison, run by the quasi-public Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation, whose board members are appointed by the mayor.
The prison was intended to be an economic generator for the struggling city when it was established by state law more than 25 years ago. Instead, it’s saddled with debt from an expansion. The outstanding principal from the bonds is $97 million and the accrued interest is $34 million.
The proposed forbearance agreement between the corporation and UMB Bank, the bondholder, would cut out city oversight and lock in a contract for ICE detainees. It also authorizes the warden to “provide confidential information about the corporation to parties considering a sale, investment, or other affiliation with the corporation.”
The proposed agreement would require the 770-bed prison to “maintain a monthly average daily population” of no less than 625 inmates.
Stephanie Gonzalez, a former Central Falls City Council member who is married to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, asked the board “Who’s really running the show? On paper, it seems that it is this board. But in practice, I believe it’s the bondholders and their lawyers making decisions (and) pressuring you to consider and vote on agreements.”
Gonzalez said the 1.3-square-mile city of less than 20,000 people has been waiting for the “financial windfall” it was supposed to receive from Wyatt. “It’s been 26 years,” she said. “It has not arrived. And it never will.”
Now, Gonzalez said, bondholders are pressuring the board to approve an agreement that would pave the way to fully privatizing the prison.
“Wyatt, in its obsession with expanding in order to cage more and more human beings, got itself into this debt,” she said. “Wyatt does not get to solve its financial issues on the back of the members of this community without a fight.”
Gonzales urged the board to vote against the proposal. “Come on this side,” she said. “Join us. Choose to be bold.”
Just one person sided with Wyatt, saying her daughter had worked there, and there were “hard-working people with stressful jobs” at the prison. Some booed her.
But the loudest chants were for the board.
The meeting had been postponed from Monday to Friday evening to accommodate the crowd. Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, of Brown RISD Hillel, said she and the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis condemned the Wyatt board for moving the meeting to the start of Shabbat.
“By rescheduling the meeting to the start of the Jewish Sabbath, members of the board showed disdain for members of our community and cowardice in facing public scrutiny,” she said.
The activists celebrated anyway, opening the meeting by softly singing “Yedid Nefesh,” the first prayer that welcomes Shabbat.
After speaking their minds, the activists shut the meeting down.
One blew the shofar, a ram’s horn used for Jewish religious purposes. Fil Eden, an organizer with Never Again Action Rhode Island, stood up and led a call-and-response answered by most of the 250 people in attendance.
“Reject this process,” they roared. “It’s a sham and a travesty. We the people of Rhode Island will not allow UMB Bank to use our state to make profits by dehumanizing our immigrant brothers and sisters. Never again means never again -- for everyone.”
As board members looked on, the crowd told them, “You canceled your last meeting. We are canceling this meeting. Shabbat Shalom.”
The protesters then began singing: “We’ve got ancestors at our backs. We’ve got generations forward. We’ve got land and spirit in our bones. Never Again Para Nadie.”
They placed electric candles on the podium with the Wyatt Detention Facility emblem, and distributed grape juice and bread to the Jewish protesters to celebrate the beginning of Shabbat.
“Whose side are you on?” they sang and clapped, as the board members sat bewildered at their table, the agenda before them. The members and lawyers walked out briefly, then returned, and futilely tried to resume order as the chants grew louder.
Warden Daniel Martin gave his monthly report, but his words were all but lost. The board’s lawyers huddled by the chairman, Wilder Arboleda, trying to be heard, as he continued the meeting.
The forbearance agreement was down for discussion, but the board members could barely hear each other, even with microphones, as the protestors came a few yards away from the table.
About an hour after the meeting started, board members voted to adjourn and were escorted out by Central Falls police officers and state troopers. They left behind a crowd that was still singing.