CENTRAL FALLS — The Attorney General’s Office, Rhode Island State Police and Central Falls Police Department are investigating an incident outside of the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility on Wednesday night in which protesters were struck by a pickup truck allegedly driven by a prison captain.
Several hundred people were picketing outside of the detention center on Wednesday night to protest the Wyatt’s housing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees from the southern border.
The protest on Wednesday was largely peaceful, with protesters carrying signs, singing, and standing or sitting in the roadway to block vehicles from accessing the Wyatt parking area. At about 10 p.m., however, tensions escalated when a vehicle arrived at the facility and attempted to enter the parking area. According to witnesses, protesters blocked the vehicle from proceeding, and several were struck.
Protesters then surrounded the vehicle and began screaming at the driver, who witnesses said appeared to be a Wyatt guard and was wearing a correctional officer uniform identifying him as a captain. The driver appeared to radio for assistance, and shortly thereafter, a group of guards came out to the parking area and made their way to the vehicle. To disperse the crowd surrounding the vehicle, guards allegedly deployed pepper spray.
The Wyatt Detention Facility addressed the incident in a brief statement Thursday:
“The incident which occurred last night is currently being investigated by the Rhode Island State Police. Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility Warden Daniel Martin is also conducting a top-to-bottom review of the incident, Wyatt correctional officers’ response, and the Wyatt’s protocols regarding protest activities outside of the facility,” the statement read.
“Captain Thomas Woodworth has been placed on administrative leave pending the results of the independent investigation being conducted by the Rhode Island State Police, and the Wyatt’s internal investigation.
“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 Attorney General’s Office also issued a statement on Thursday morning, saying: “This Office, working with the Rhode Island State Police, is investigating what transpired last night at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls. Once we have a full understanding of the relevant facts, we will determine how to proceed. 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.”
Central Falls Police Chief Col. Daniel J. Barzykowski on Thursday morning said, “We are working with the Attorney General and the Rhode Island State Police to investigate last night’s incident. Any witnesses who have not yet made a statement are encouraged to reach out to the Central Falls Police Department, or the Rhode Island State Police.
“We are unable to provide further information at this time in order to maintain the integrity of the investigation,” Barzykowski said. “Additional information will be provided when available and appropriate.”
According to Dr. Michael Fine, who was at the scene participating in the protest, one or possibly two people were transported to the hospital for injuries that may have been related to being struck by the vehicle, and several others were treated for exposure to the pepper spray. He said none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.
The protest was organized by the group Never Again, which says it opposes Wyatt’s agreement with ICE to house immigration detainees. A similar protest in July resulted in 18 arrests by police. Representatives from Never Again said dozens of people were treated for injuries, including some who were injured by the truck, and many more who were incapacitated by pepper spray.
The detention center on High Street has been at the center of controversy over the past few months, stemming back to March, when Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa held a press conference at City Hall decrying what he described as a “backroom deal” between the Wyatt and ICE to house detainees from the southern border. The mayor also said that the prison needed to be shut down immediately.
The Wyatt Detention Facility on March 10 received 133 detainees from the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Wednesday night’s incident drew criticism and rebukes from officials on both a local and federal level.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed tweeted that “Peaceful protest is an American right. Last night’s video is very disturbing and the State Police must swiftly investigate.”
U.S. Congressman David Cicilline added: “Very disturbing videos taken last night outside the Wyatt Detention Facility. The right of a free people to protest their government is fundamental to our democracy. Wyatt needs to fully cooperate with the State Police and the Attorney General during their investigation.”
Gov. Gina M. Raimondo also tweeted: “I share the outrage Rhode Islanders are feeling about the incident depicted in the video at the Wyatt Detention Center. Our state and our nation were built on the idea that everyone has a right to express their opinion publicly and peacefully. President Trump’s immigration policies are immoral, and these Rhode Islanders were exercising their constitutional right to protest. I am in communication with (Rhode Island) State Police Colonel Jim Manni regarding the events of last night, and we are committed to a full investigation.”
U.S. Congressman David Cicilline also weighed in with a statement on Thursday:
“The right of a free people to peacefully protest their government is fundamental to our democracy. 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.
“It’s critical that a thorough, independent investigation into this incident be conducted, and that Warden Daniel Martin make himself available to discuss this matter further.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette