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Wyatt board balks at vote on bondholder agreement, apologizes to Jewish activists

Chair Wilder Arboleda at last Friday’s meeting at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls. (Ryan T. Conaty for the Boston Globe)
Chair Wilder Arboleda at last Friday’s meeting at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls. (Ryan T. Conaty for the Boston Globe)Ryan T. Conaty

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. -- The board overseeing the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility balked at voting Monday on a bondholder agreement that would lock in a contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and potentially lead to a sale to a private prison.

As nearly 200 activists with the Jewish organization Never Again Action Rhode Island held signs protesting ICE and private prisons, board chairman Wilder Arboleda said the board had questions of its own and weren’t going to vote on the proposed agreement with UMB Bank.

The board went into a closed-door session with its lawyers to discuss the “forbearance agreement” and pending litigation. They will discuss the agreement again Tuesday in a conference in chambers at U.S. District Court, where the board and Central Falls are fighting a lawsuit brought by UMB Bank, the trustee for the bondholders.

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Wyatt, a nonprofit prison run by a quasi-public corporation, owes about $130 million in principal and interest from an expansion. The facility holds detainees of US Marshals, the US Navy, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and those picked up by ICE in “Southern Border Zero Tolerance Initiative.”

Arboleda apologized to the Jewish activists for holding the last meeting on Friday evening, the start of Shabbat, and said the board appreciated the “sincerity and passion” of the activists.

He also said that the board has “moral, legal and fiduciary obligations” to many others -- the health and safety of detainees, the corrections officers and staff at the Wyatt, the people of Central Falls, and the state of Rhode Island, which created Wyatt through legislation more than 25 years ago.

“And, we do have obligations to UMB Bank,” Arboleda added. “Not because we care whether they are profitable, but because we borrowed money and have an obligation to try to repay that debt.”

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He spoke over the trumpeting sounds of a ram’s horn played by Amy Cohen of Providence, as one activist after another walked forward and dropped shreds of black fabric on the floor in front of the board. This was the Jewish act of Kriah, the rending of garments by mourners.

As the board members left for a closed-door meeting, the protesters held a news conference on the sidewalk outside Wyatt, holding a banner that read “Dignity Not Detention.”

The protesters called on Governor Gina M. Raimondo to support legislation to close the facility and ban private prisons in Rhode Island.

Matthew Harvey, an organizer of Never Again Action Rhode Island, said the group appreciated the board’s apology but would have appreciated it more on Friday night.

As for the board’s decision not to vote and to discuss the issue in executive session, Harvey said, “Talk is cheap. They are postponing the vote, and they are discussing the matter outside the public eye. It preserves the status quo, which is that ICE is still active in the state, and the state is still complicit in the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Also, the sale of Wyatt to a private prison corporation is still on the table.”

Former state Representative Aaron Regunberg, a volunteer organizer for Never Again Action Rhode Island, called for Raimondo to “step up.”

“We need you to make good on the promises you made to oppose Donald Trump’s hateful immigration policies,” Regunberg said. “We need you to stop ducking and dodging and join our call for immediate action to ban private prisons in Rhode Island.”

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Regunberg noted the California state legislature last week voted to ban for-profit private prisons, including some facilities used by ICE, and other states have taken similar steps.

“Those acts of leadership stand in stark contrast to what we are seeing in Rhode Island,” Regunberg said. “Here, our governor and top legislative leaders stood by and watched as this prison behind us contracted with ICE to wage war on human beings whose only crime is seeking safety and hope for their families.”

Protesters released an “open letter” to Raimondo, a Democrat, calling for her to “publicly support legislation to close the Wyatt detention facility and ban private prisons in Rhode Island,” among other actions.

“We want the Governor to understand that we are tired of waiting for our leaders to lead,” Regunberg said. “We are tired of hearing pledges of solidarity during election years that evaporate the moment the primary votes are done being counted.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com Amanda Milkovits can be reached atamanda.milkovits@globe.com