PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Immigration advocates descended upon the State House Tuesday, demanding the Wyatt Detention Center be shut down after what they’re calling a violent attack on peaceful protesters outside the facility last week.
Several Jewish organizations, including “Never Again Action,” called upon state lawmakers to end the facility’s collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and outlaw the operation of private, for-profit prisons.
Hundreds of people lined the streets outside the prison last Wednesday during a peaceful demonstration, protesting the facility’s partnership with immigration officials.
A few hours into the protest, video obtained by Eyewitness News shows a black pickup truck drove into a group of protesters blocking off a staff parking lot. Five people were sent to the hospital.
As protesters surrounded the truck to prevent it from leaving, several correctional officers were seen on video using what appears to be pepper spray on the crowd after asking everyone to move away from the vehicle.
A photo sent to Eyewitness News by the protest’s organizer shows a correctional officer – Captain Thomas Woodworth – behind the wheel of the truck. He was immediately placed on administrative leave after the incident and later resigned from his position at the prison.
Protesters tell Eyewitness News the incident is a glimpse into how officers treat detainees inside the facility.
“If officers will use this kind of violence against peaceful protesters – in front of cameras – imagine what the defenseless detainees inside are subjected to, every day, behind the walls of the prison,” said former State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who participated in last week’s protest. “Our elected officials are complicit in this violence every day they allow the Wyatt to remain open.”
A spokesperson for the prison maintains that the detainees being housed there are being treated humanely and with dignity. The prison also asserts that it’s a “non-profit, quasi-public facility.”
“As numerous audits and reviews show, Wyatt has been subjected to constant scrutiny and oversight and has been found to be operating well — providing safe, clean and humanitarian conditions for its staff and detainees,” the facility said in a statement.
“The primary mission of the Wyatt is to securely and humanely house detainees sent to the facility by referring partner agencies including the USMS, ICE and the United States Navy,” the statement continued. “The Wyatt plays no role in the policies of the federal government.”
The facility did not comment on the protesters’ demand to shut down the prison.
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office said before the state can order the prison closed, changes must first be made at the federal level.
“President Trump’s immigration policies are immoral and our nation’s immigration system is broken,” a spokesperson for Raimondo wrote. “We need fundamental and humane reform from Washington so there can be a path forward for anyone who comes to this country seeking a better life.”
Regunberg disagrees, saying it is possible if the state passes legislation banning private, for-profit prisons in Rhode Island.
“The Wyatt Detention Center is a creature of state statute,” he said. “It exists as a legal entity through state law.”