CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) — What was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration at the Wyatt Detention Center Wednesday night turned into chaos after a pickup truck abruptly drove through a crowd of protesters.
Hundreds of people lined the streets of the privately operated detention center to protest the prison’s partnership with immigration officials.
The prison has been under scrutiny for months after entering an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house detainees while they await trial. At last check, approximately 139 federal immigration detainees are currently being housed at Wyatt.
The demonstration – organized by the Jewish youth group “Never Again Action” – began hours before the incident when protesters marched to the facility following a rally at Jenks Park and Cogswell Tower.
Protesters stood in front of the entrance to the facility, holding hands to form a chain. Another group of protesters sat in the middle of the road, blocking off access to a staff parking lot. A few hours into the protest, video obtained by Eyewitness News showed a pickup truck abruptly driving into the seated protesters, hitting some and sending others running.
After the car was stopped by another group of protesters, video showed what appeared to be a group of correctional officers from the facility running over to the truck. The officers then appeared to use pepper spray on the crowd of people after asking them to move away from the truck.
Arthur Gleiner, who participated in the protest, said he was blinded by the pepper spray.
“Some of us were just standing to the side, supporting what was going on and trying to keep the truck from leaving the scene after they had really assaulted, with their vehicle, these people,” Gleiner said. “Several officers showed up and told everybody to back up and before anyone had a chance to move they sprayed pepper spray indiscriminately at a whole crowd of people.”
The Rhode Island Attorney General’s office said they are working with Rhode Island State Police to investigate the incident.
“Once we have a full understanding of the relevant facts, we will determine how to proceed,” the Attorney General’s office said in a statement. “Peaceful protest is a fundamental right of all Americans; it is unfortunate last night’s situation unfolded as it did. We urge all to exercise restraint as our investigation proceeds.”
The Wyatt Detention Facility has also opened its own internal investigation, including a “top to bottom review” of the incident and the correctional officers’ response.
“The Wyatt supports the First Amendment right of citizens to peacefully protest on public property surrounding the facility, and the First Amendment right of journalists to report on the facility,” the facility said in a statement.
In addition, the facility also said an officer has been placed on administrative leave pending the results of the investigation.
A photo sent to Eyewitness News by the organizer of the protest shows the officer, Captain Thomas Woodworth, in the driver’s seat of the pickup truck that drove into the crowd.
The Central Falls Police Department is urging anyone who witnessed the incident to reach out to investigators.
“Any witnesses who have not made a statement are encouraged to reach out to the Central Falls Police Department, or the Rhode Island State Police,” the department said in a statement.
Governor Gina Raimondo said she is outraged after learning about the incident.
“Our state and nation were built on the idea that everyone has a right to express their opinion publically and peacefully,” she said in a tweet.
Congressman David Cicilline also expressed frustration, urging the facility to fully cooperate with the investigation.
“I am deeply disturbed by reports that several protesters were struck last night by a vehicle driven by an employee of the Wyatt Detention Facility,” Cicilline said in a statement.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said she was “dismayed” to hear about what happened, saying the incident is “a painful reminder of the dangers of privatizing our prisons.”
“When companies profit from putting people behind bars, you create an economy that does not value immigration or criminal justice reform,” Gorbea said in a statement. “You also get situations like the ones last night at Wyatt where the safety and constitutional rights of people are put at serious risk.”