PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A group of advocates say they are outraged after learning no criminal charges have been filed against a former Wyatt Detention Center captain who was captured on camera driving his truck into a line of protesters in August.
R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha held a news conference Wednesday to announce a Providence County grand jury’s decision not to charge anyone involved in the incident, including former Captain Thomas Woodworth.
Former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who is part of the Never Again Action advocacy group that helped organize the protest, slammed the decision to not bring charges.
“Attorney General Neronha has let everyone know it is OK to plow their vehicle into protesters they don’t agree with,” Regunberg said.
The group has protested the prison’s agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detainees while they await immigration proceedings.
During a news conference, Neronha said the grand jury interviewed more than 70 people, reviewed dozens of videos and met for several days before the jurors decided not to bring criminal charges. He would not get into specifics about what charges were presented to the grand jury, but made it clear a majority of the 23 jurors ultimately determined there wasn’t enough evidence to return charges.
“There are times when grand jurors have to make a distinction between misconduct and criminal misconduct,” he said. “The criminal justice system is not a perfect instrument. Sometimes it’s a blunt instrument and not a scalpel.”
Regunberg is one of the hundreds of people that lined the streets of the quasi-public prison in Central Falls about two months ago when Woodworth stopped his pickup truck in front of a line of the protesters. The group had formed a human chain in the middle of the road, blocking off access to a staff parking lot.
Woodworth was then captured on camera driving into the seated protesters, sparking several minutes of chaos as protesters yelled at him to stop and banged on his truck. A group of correctional officers emerged and appeared to use pepper spray on the protesters after asking them to move away from the truck.
Tammy Brown, who was protesting during the night of the incident, said the decision to not bring charges was outrageous.
“The idea that prison guards can come out of a prison and ran people over and pepper-sprayed them is absolutely outrageous and it sets a terrible precedent,” Brown said. “He tried to run us over with a car, that’s absolutely unbelievable.”
A Wyatt spokesperson declined to comment and would not answer questions about whether Woodworth had returned to employment.
An attorney representing the correctional officers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Neronha, who met with some of the protesters who were injured or pepper-sprayed ahead of announcing the grand jury decision, said he directed his prosecutors to not bring a case against the protesters.
He also said he understood their frustration in the grand jury’s decision but was careful not to criticize the jurors, investigators or prosecutors involved in the case.
“It’s not lost on me the pain they are in,” he said, adding that sometimes actions can be wrong, but don’t “rise to the level of criminal misconduct.”
The words did not provide much comfort to the protesters. Jackie Alexander, who says she was struck by the pickup truck, said she has lingering physical injuries, but the emotional injuries are much worse.
“The fact remains that there are still people sitting in Wyatt on immigration charges and a captain of theirs did injury to us in front of cameras,” Alexander said in an interview. “So lord knows what happens behind closed doors.”
The advocacy group later released a statement saying members who testified before the grand jury reported prosecutors focused on the actions of the protesters, “in an effort to justify Woodworth’s and his colleagues’ self-evidently indefensible actions.”
The group said the decision not to bring charges is evidence that there is no equal protection of the law.
“Immigrants can be imprisoned for no crime but seeking a better life for their families. People of color can be arrested for the most minor nonviolent drug crimes. But law enforcement—even privatized law enforcement—has no accountability for violently assaulting peaceful demonstrators,” the group added.
Neronha announced the grand jury investigation last month, saying during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers, “To me, there are really two things we are looking at, one is the operation of the vehicle and the other one is the deployment of pepper spray.”
Regunberg slammed Neronha’s office, saying the state tried to protect the correctional officers.
“The prosecutorial team was working as hard as possible to create the frame that the guard’s actions was justified by a supposed threat of violence from our peaceful nonviolent protest,” Regunberg said.
Neronha, while not criticizing the outcome of the grand jury, admitted the protest “devolved into an extremely unfortunate incident,” which he believes could have been avoided under different circumstances.
At the time of the protest, correctional officers responded immediately with what appeared to be pepper spray, while Central Falls police and R.I. State Police responded afterward.
State Police Col. James Manni has since directed troopers to coordinate with Central Falls police on all protests at the Wyatt. Central Falls Col. Daniel Barzykowski, meanwhile, said his department will have a stronger presence and communicate with other involved parties to ensure safety in the future.
Protesters had criticized Central Falls Police for not being nearby during the incident. Barzykowski acknowledged that officers were patrolling the area, but not immediately on the scene.
He also noted that his officers had made 18 arrests during previous protests, but did not use any force or pepper spray. Central Falls Mayor James Diossa issued a statement saying he was “disappointed” with the outcome but thankful to the investigators’ efforts.
“With the Wyatt being located in our city and the city receiving no financial benefit, Central Falls is in a challenging position,” he said, “Ongoing mediation in federal court prevents me from providing much detail, but I will continue to work with city and state leaders to find ways to minimize the negative impacts of this facility on the life of our community.”
When asked whether he thought the grand jury made the right decision, Neronha was adamant in his defense.
“I’ve never once criticized a jury or a grand jury. I don’t think it’s appropriate and I won’t do it,” he said.
A spokesperson for the prison confirmed that Wyatt recently received 16 additional ICE detainees in October from the Suffolk County House of Corrections after the Boston prison ended its contract with the agency.
With Wyatt’s number of ICE detainees rising to 163, Brown said the group will not stop until that number is brought down to zero.
“We’re not going to let this stop us from protesting,” Brown said. “We will be back – we will be at the State House, we will be at Wyatt.”