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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Wyatt Prison board schedules meeting on the Sabbath perhaps to discourage Jewish protesters

It didn’t work
By Steve Ahlquist for UpRiseRI

“Board members, I am concerned for your souls,” said Law Professor Jared Goldstein. “The agreement before you is an agreement with evil. By voting for this agreement, you would dedicate yourself to maximize profits for the investors, paid for with the bodies of our brothers and sisters. Do not sell your souls for someone else’s greed.”
On Friday the Thirteenth evening 300 people attended the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation (CFDFC) meeting held in a basketball court across the street from the Wyatt Detention Center

The meeting was held by the governing board to vote on a new forbearance agreement that will have reaffirm the facility’s controversial agreement with the United States Marshal Service to house people detained under the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) zero tolerance border policy.

The forbearance agreement will also allow the board to enter into negotiations to sell the prison to a private, for-profit prison company such as CoreCivic, taking the governance of the facility out of pubic hands and public accountability.

The board had originally scheduled their meeting for Monday night, but cancelled it it citing “safety” concerns when they realized that a large number of people would be attending in the wake of the incident in which Wyatt Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth drove his truck into protesters.

The meeting was scheduled for Friday, during Shabbat, with the full knowledge that many of the protesters with the group Never Again Action, are Jewish, and therefore many would be unable to attend. Whether this was done in ignorance, as a by-product of Christian hegemony, or as a deliberate act to blunt the efficacy of the protest is unknown. The CFDFC will not comment on this issue on the record.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Congratulations to Steve Ahlquist, not just for this great article, but for his comprehensive coverage of this issue and many others affecting the people of Rhode Island. He frequently covers issues in UpRiseRI that are covered no where else in Rhode Island's media. In Steve's original article, you will find numerous photographs as well as video of the events. Good work, Steve!   - Will Collette

Only three of the current four members of the Board, Herman YipWilder Arboleda, and Gary Berdugo, were present for the meeting. Agostinho Silva, who is also a Central Falls City Council member, has been regularly recusing himself. The most recent Board Chair, Joseph Molina Flynn, stepped down from his position in late April/early May. That seat has been left vacant by Central Falls Mayor James Diossa.

In addition to the board, there were prison officials including Warden Daniel Martin, Wyatt legal council Kerry Walsh from the law firm of Pannone, Lopes, Devereaux and O’Gara, and Wyatt Spokesperson Christopher Hunter. Other lawyers in the room were not identified.

After opening the meeting and electing Arboleda the temporary chair for the meeting, time was made for public comment. Of the eight people who had the chance to publicly comment, only one, Alice Webb, spoke in favor of the Wyatt, citing the jobs the prison supplies and her Christian beliefs. 

The rest of the speakers, Jared GoldsteinMatt Harvey, Rabbi Michelle DardashtiTal FriedenAaron RegunbergStephanie GonzalezAdanjesús Marín and Catarina Lorenzo spoke passionately about the evils of for-profit prisons and Trump’s immigration policies, and about the moral duty of the CFDFC board to vote down the forbearance agreement. 

A few minutes before 7 o’clock, right after the stirring public testimony of Adanjesús Marín, a shofar was blown, and members of the public stood up, with calls of “Mic check!”

From that point on the crowd was loud and unruly, disrupting the meeting.

Arboleda first called for order and then called for a recess. The boardmembers, prison staff and lawyers left the room. The protesters sang and chanted. Protester Sy Gitin lit electric candles. 

Protester Lex Rofeberg said, “They will not take Shabbat from us.” Then there was more singing as Gitin and Amanda Berman Pompili passed out bread to those present.

Minutes later, having convened outside the sight and hearing of those gathered in the room, board members, prison staff and lawyers re-entered the room and continued the public hearing as if there was no protest going on. Temporary Chair Arboleda called names on the microphone to come forward and speak, even though there was no way to hear the names being called.

Arboleda and the board then pantomimed going through the rest of the agenda, dutifully checking off items a, b and c as if the board had discussed the forbearance agreement, as if Warden Daniel Martin had delivered a coherent, discernible Warden’s Report, etc.

The three boardmembers then voted to adjourn the meeting, as the secretary strained to hear.

At the next meeting of the CFDFC, scheduled for Monday evening at 5:30pm, the CFDFC board plans to vote on the forbearance agreement. But if there was no meaningful public discussion held during this meeting, can such a vote legally take place?

Here’s the agenda for Monday evening’s CFDFC board meeting. Note that there will be no public comment taken at this meeting, just a vote.

The protesters from AMOR (Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance), Never Again Action and other groups, vowed to present at Monday’s meeting.

“The Wyatt is a public institution,” said Roger Wiliams University Law Professor Jared Goldstein, who was arrested at the first Never Again Action protest at the Wyatt and whose children were in the paty of the truck when Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth drove into protesters. 

“It was created by the people of Rhode Island and the City of Central Falls. The board members are public servants.

“Here’s what the law says: “The exercise of the powers granted by this chapter will be in all respects for the benefit of the people of the state and for the facilitation of the conduct of their public business.”

“Board members, you are here as public servants to work for the benefit of the people of Rhode Island but the agreement you’re considering tonight would betray the public trust that you’re here to serve. You didn’t provide the public a copy of the agreement to the people but in this case I happened to get a copy of the agreement and can offer some comments.

“Here’s what it says: ‘…each member of the Board of Directors of the Corporation owes their exclusive and independent duty to the Corporation and the Corporation’s creditors… It is further acknowledged that the Bond Trustee, Majority Owner and the Corporation share the common goal of working to ensure the maximization of the value of the Corporation.’

“So instead of striving to work for the benefit of the people of the state, as Rhode Island law requires, the agreement says you have an exclusive duty to work for the Corporation’s creditors (that is, the out of state investors). Instead of doing the people’s business you would commit yourself to maximizing profits for the investors.

“And how does the agreement seek to make money for the investors? The agreement says that Wyatt will carry out its agreement with the United States Marshals Service and with ICE. In particular, the agreement says that Wyatt ‘shall maintain a monthly average daily population (‘ADP’) of no less than 625.’ The agreement specifies a minimum number of human bodies Wyatt needs to hold to maximize profits for these out of state investors. At least 625 people, our brothers and sisters, need to be held here to make the just the minimum profit that will satisfy the investors.

“The agreement speaks in the language of human trafficking,” continued Goldstein. “Your job will be find those 625 bodies to hold in captivity here. And you will hold them only if you get the right price to make money for the benefit of the investors.

“When we put people in prisons, it’s always a tragedy. The power to hold people behind barbed wires and under lock and key is a fearsome power that we should exercise sparingly. It is not a power we should try to harness for profits.

“Another way that the agreement directs you to fulfill your duty to maximize profits is that it commits you to do everything you can to try to sell the prison to a private buyer. You will be obligated to cooperate with an investment bank, to produce sales brochures for the prison, to meet with potential buyers, to get the best price you can to fill the investors pockets.

“Selling Wyatt to a private buyer would remove any pretense that Wyatt is here for the benefit of the people of Rhode Island. It would make it perfectly clear that it is only here to serve the interest of the investors, who stand to profit from other people’s suffering. It would remove the last vestiges of public oversight. This is a public meeting tonight because Wyatt is public. We know a little about what is going on here because Wyatt is public. But if you sell it to a private buyer the public will be closed out completely.

“I spent two years representing prisoners at Guantanamo. And if there’s one thing I learned from that experiences it’s that when you create a secret prison beyond public control, atrocities are sure to follow. By approving this agreement, you would be paving the way for atrocities. The new masters will have one interest: hold as many bodies here at the least cost. When making money is the only duty that matters, what happens to those human beings doesn’t matter.

“As a Jew I am under a duty to act too. Like most Jews, there were members of my family who I never got to meet because they were rounded up and killed during the Holocaust. That history has imposed on our community a duty to do whatever we can to make sure that nothing like that happens again, to anyone. The words Never Again are something we take seriously. It’s not just a slogan. It is a command. It doesn’t mean we should wait until genocide is happening before we act. We must act at the first step, before it’s too late. We don’t say, wait until the gas chambers are constructed and the crematoria fires have been lit. We must act when we see that abuses are beginning.

“Under the agreement you are considering, your exclusive duty to the investors would mean that you couldn’t consider the morality of what happens here, what abuses ICE is committing. You would be required to hold people here, whether it’s to fulfill President Trump’s no-tolerance policy or Hitler’s Final Solution. If it would maximize the profits for investors to build gas chambers and crematoria here at Wyatt, this agreement would require you to build them. You would be forbidden to consider human rights or human suffering because morality has nothing to do with profits.

“Board members, I am concerned for your souls,” concluded Goldstein. “The agreement before you is an agreement with evil. By voting for this agreement, you would dedicate yourself to maximize profits for the investors, paid for with the bodies of our brothers and sisters. Do not sell your souls for someone else’s greed.”

“You can make a choice,” said Matt Harvey. “You can say, ‘I will not vote for an agreement that keeps ICE in this community.’ You can say, ‘I will not vote for an agreement that puts this facility and the human beings incarcerated inside into the hands of a for-profit corporation.’ Or, you can say, ‘I will not be part of a body that is told to make that kind of decision.’

“Get up from that table and come sit with us. We have plenty of yellow tee shits to go around.
“You don’t have to be Jewish. You don’t have to share our history. You just have to agree but the lessons and the judgment of history means something.”

“I’m honored and grateful that I am able to speak, briefly, before I have to take leave for the Sabbath,” said Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, reading a statement from the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.

“There’s no commandment in the Quran, in the Bible, shared by Jews and Christians that is repeated more often than, ‘You shall love a stranger’ and ‘You shall not oppress a stranger.’ The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island denounces the cruel and inhumane policies of the present federal administration that are calculated to vilify humiliate and demoralize those who come to our country seeking asylum and safety from persecution and violence…”

“We join these protesters in opposition to the detention and the treatment of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers we refuse to be silence and therefore complicit in the face of human rights abuses or great threats to civil rights in this country.

“Further, we wish to condemn the members of the Donald W Wyatt Detention Center Board of Directors for rescheduling the meeting this week from Monday to Friday,” continued Dardashti. “It seems that decision was in response to the planned action by Jewish activists.

“By rescheduling the meeting at the start of the Jewish Sabbath the members of the board showed disdain for our community…”

Tal Frieden read a statement from Rabbi Leora Abelson, because, “as you all know, Friday evening is a hard time for a rabbi to make it to a board meeting…

“We are here to protect life and safety by urging you to either vote no, commit to voting no on his forbearance agreement or to resign from your position on this board,” read Frieden. 

“On Shabbat and on every day of the week we will fight to make this country what our ancestors needed it to be and what our tradition teaches us to build: a place where immigrants are met with welcome, not in prison, not separated from their families, not threatened with violence and not used as a tool to earn profit for private corporation…”

“I would like to propose a hypothetical,” said former Rhode Island State Representative Aaron Regunburg. He then went on to describe a “business idiot” who is also a bad person who seeks to make money by through investing in a for-profit prison.

“Here’s the question,” Regunburg said to the Boardmembers, “How much power, how many unabridged unsupervised rights do you owe to me, the violence-prone jerk with zero business sense, to recover on my stupid and immoral investment?”

“We are here tonight, on Shabbat, because UMB Bank’s proposal is not just something that should never happen it’s something that we the people of Rhode Island are actually not going to allow to happen.”

“Who’s really running the show?” asked Central Falls resident Stephanie Gonzalez. “Is it you, boardmembers? On paper, it seems like it’s this board, but in practice, I believe it’s the bondholders and their lawyers, making decisions and pressuring you to consider and vote on agreements in the name of ‘fiduciary responsibility.’

“The bondholders aren’t here today, I assume, but I hope they’re paying attention, and I hope their lawyers are too…

“Today you have an incredible responsibility and job to be bold. Choose to be bold. And I’ll echo what others have said: Come on this side. Join us. Choose to be bold…”

Alice Webb spoke in favor of the prison and in support of Trump’s immigration policies. “My grandparents came here legally, ” said Webb. “There were rules they had to abide by when they came here…”

“Are you going to be proud of your choice in five years, in ten years, in 20 years?” Adanjesús Marín asked the boardmembers. “Are you going to be proud to defend voting for some because you felt like you had to and it didn’t matter that you were strengthening a killing machine?

“This is not respectable. I will not respect this process. No one should respect this process, because your process is about death!”

It was at this point that the audience began to disrupt the meeting.

Shabbat is begun.

Catarina Lorenzo of AMOR (Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance) addresses the crowd in Spanish.
The CFDFC returns and pantomimes a meeting.

Former Central Falls Mayor Thomas Lazieh moved his seat forward to better listen to the boardmembers. The rest of the crowd joins him, closing the wide gap between the boardmembers and those in attendance.

Lazieh was the Mayor who brought the Wyatt to Central Falls and he still supports the Wyatt.
The hearing is adjourned and the boardmembers, lawyers and prison staff leave.

Central Falls City Councilmember Jonathan Acosta addresses the crowd, then he and his on month old son leads them out onto the street. Acosta is one of four Central Falls City Councilmembers named in the lawsuit from UMB Bank on behalf of the bondholders.

“It’s ridiculous that we live in a place where we allowed elected officials, one of whom just walked out the room, a former mayor, [Thomas Lazieh] who forced the poorest city in the state to choose between being a trash dump and a prison, which to us says all we are is trash or criminals,” said Acosta. “And you add to that that we are the descendants of the very migrants that they’re now locking up.

“If you look at the details of the forbearance agreement – and a lot of us were appealing to humanity but we also should be appealing to democracy and to legality – there’s no reason why they should be voting on an agreement that relinquishes their right to vote over a contract between bondholders and ICE. That’s in the agreement.

“There’s no reason why they should be voting on an agreement that, in a supposedly quasi public private – which is what their bondholders PR group has been selling – would say that the city would have no jurisdiction over the administration of the detention facility.

“There’s no reason why they should be voting on an agreement whose last section says that they would be relinquishing their right to any trial with the jury.

“What they are saying is they don’t believe in democracy. What they are saying is that all they care about is bondholders. This state has already shown multiple times, including during our municipal bankruptcy, one of eight in the entire country, that this state will always privilege creditors over people. We refuse to continue to do that, and if my son has to inherit the $120M debt that these assholes tried to put on me in their lawsuit, then at least he will die paying for humanity.”

Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.

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