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Stop incarceration for profit: Rhode Island protesters say no to private prisons

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by Maurice Methot

September 23, 2019

 

The following is by Maurice Methot of Providence, Rhode Island, participant in ongoing protests against Trump's policy of detention of refugee claimants in the US.

On August 14th, a protest at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island made national news in the US when a black pickup truck operated by a Wyatt/ICE officer drove directly into a crowd of protestors. A moment later, another ICE officer dispersed the stunned crowd with pepper spray. 

The driver of the truck remains uncharged and the incident is still “under investigation.”

Another protest was planned for Wednesday September 11 to oppose a public meeting called by the executive board of the Wyatt. On the agenda was a discussion in anticipation of a vote on a new contract with the shareholders and creditors of the facility. 

If approved, the "semi-public" prison facility, originally chartered to provide a degree of economic relief for the City of Central Falls, would be divested of any economic responsibility toward the city and would instead operate as a wholly profit-based enterprise responsible only to its shareholders and to its creditor - the UNB bank. 

Under the terms of the new contract, the city of Central Falls would relinquish all jurisdiction and oversight and agree to an arrangement which would require that the detention center maintain a population of no less than 630+ incarcerated people for “at least two consecutive inspection periods”, or else ownership would revert entirely to a private, out-of-state company which profits from incarceration. 

A number of states, including California, have already banned for-profit private prisons. How long it will take for Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to wake up to the inhumanity of the Wyatt Detention Center is anyone’s guess.

However, at the last moment, the Wyatt Center board meeting was abruptly called off and rescheduled for the following Friday evening. It seemed obvious that this last-minute rescheduling was intended as a cynical affront to the Jewish organization Never Again Action which has led the opposition against the creeping fascism of incarceration-for-profit and the unlawful detention of immigrants and asylum-seekers by ICE at the Wyatt Detention Center.

 Since the Jewish Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday evening, the rescheduling was a blatant (but failed) attempt to curtail attendance to the rescheduled board meeting. Well over 200 protestors gathered in protest, and in celebration of Shabbat at the prison itself.

The first half of the board meeting was an opportunity for protestors to deliver articulate and passionate statements outlining the immorality of incarceration-for-profit, urging board members to reject the terms of the new contract. Speaker after speaker called for board members to resign from the board, and to "join us" in protest.

"We want Governor Raimondo and other officials to commit immediately to passing legislation that is going to keep private prisons out of Rhode Island,” said Amy Anthony, a spokeswoman for the Jewish activist group Never Again Action Rhode Island. 

Forty-five minutes later the board called for a brief recess, during which time the protestors passed bread and wine and celebrated Shabbat right there in the gymnasium of the Wyatt Detention Center, where the public meeting was held. From that point on protestors sang and clapped in opposition to the proceedings - a rejection of the authority and validity of the proceedings. 

After some time, the board realized the futility of continuing the meeting and adjourned, with another board meeting scheduled for the following Monday, with an agenda to vote on the new contract. 

As protestors slowly dispersed under the watchful eyes of numerous Central Falls and RI State Police, we vowed to return to the Monday meeting to continue to gather in protest of the creeping fascism inherent in any profiteering based on the illegal incarceration of innocent people who are simply seeking safety in the so-called "land of the free."

Monday

On Monday September 16, the board reconvened, and so did the protest. After a short opening statement, the board announced that they would be going into closed session, and would not be voting on the contract without further consultation with their lawyers. 

Protestors turned our backs to the board as they made their statement, and left small pieces of torn black cloth on the floor as we exited as a symbol of the irreparable damage already inflicted by the monstrosity-in-chief’s ongoing malevolence.

Is the delay in vote a stalling strategy? A diversionary tactic? It’s hard to know, but I did speak to one of the board members later in the evening who voiced some real concerns about the legal terms of the contract. 

I had the distinct impression that the pressure of the protests is having its effect – and the concerns of the board members are more about protecting their own butts from any litigation down the line. 

In the meantime, innocent people languish in a gulag in our own backyard, unwilling pawns in a cynical political game.

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