25 years ago, the Wyatt Detention Center looked like the answer to Central Falls’ financial problems. Today, the future of the prison is up in the air.
Dilenia Cruz Rodriguez provided translation services.
New political leaders in the state’s smallest city are battling to dismantle the prison, reflecting a change in Central Falls’ vision of its future.
On Dexter Street in Central Falls, restaurants like El Paisa and La Casona flank mainstays like Stanley’s Hamburgers; reflecting the long-growing Latino population.
And Latino residents here say people are talking about Wyatt, the privately-run prison that opened up a in a far-flung corner of this one-square mile-city in 1993.
“People are talking in stores and supermarkets,” said Pedro Taveras, a delivery driver at La Casona, a Colombian restaurant on the street. Taveras sometimes delivers food to guards at Wyatt, and he says he’s worried that immigrants are being held inside.
Taveras highlights the fear and confusion that exists in this city when it comes to Wyatt. The privately-run prison opened to house prisoners for the U.S. Marshal Service being transported between court appearances. But Wyatt has had other contracts as well. For several years in the mid-2000s, it held detainees for federal immigration authorities, including undocumented residents from Central Falls.
“It stands as a massive, brick and barbed wire monument to out of control capitalism, corporate greed and social injustice,” said Central Falls Mayor James Diossa at a press conference this March, surrounded by members of the City Council and a State Representative.
“Simply put, the Wyatt detention center needs to be shut down immediately,” Diossa said.
The news conference was in response to the news that prison was once again holding detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Many leaders in this city, have been outspoken critics of President Donald Trump and new federal immigration policy, and have even declared themselves a sanctuary city.
In the weeks that followed, the city council passed a resolution officially renouncing support for Wyatt. The board that governs Wyatt suspended the ICE contract.Legislation was introduced at the statehouse to empower the city’s leaders to dissolve the prison organization.
These actions prompted the bondholders for Wyatt to sue the city. Now both sides are entangled in federal mediation.
Anger over the prison, from the highest levels of the city’s government is a dramatic shift from the initial acceptance of Wyatt in the early 1990s, when the detention center was an idea, born out of a financial crisis.
“We had no money, we had bills coming in, we had creditors calling, we had to lay people off,” said former Central Falls finance director Edna Poulin. According to Poulin, the city was more than a million dollars in the red.
The state’s smallest city was watching its tax base dry up as the manufacturing industry that once drove the economy shuttered. City leaders faced a problem.
“How can we bring revenue into the city? 1.2 square miles, not a lot of places to build,” Poulin said. “ One of the poorest cities, where do you get money? You have to explore all the options, and that was a viable option.”
Desperate for a new source of revenue, in 1991, the city council and state lawmakers drew up a unique plan: a privately-run detention center meant to hold people for federal prosecution. The prison would make money off contracts with federal agencies, and be built with private bonds, not on the taxpayers’ dime.
Wyatt is the only facility of its kind in the state. And for years it operated with little controversy.
But some residents have always had concerns.
“There was always talk about the Wyatt,” said Gonzalo Cuervo, who’s been involved in Central Falls politics for years and now works for the Secretary of State.
“There were a lot of people that weren’t happy, but always the argument of the revenue stream outweighed the unhappiness.”
Wyatt has paid the city of Central Falls more than five and a half million dollars since it opened in 1993. But that revenue stream was never a guarantee. After the 2008 death of a Chinese citizen being held at Wyatt for deportation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement ended its contract with the prison.
Wyatt began to face financial troubles, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy, and rewriting its contract with the city in 2015. The detention center was no longer the cash cow the city hoped for, city residents were wary and the political landscape was changing.
Political observers say 2012 was a turning point for Central Falls politics, and the election of James Diossa as Mayor helped push a new class of Latino residents into elected office.
“What you’re seeing right now is, we have an empowered new generation that has taken the reigns of its own destiny and its own city and saying ‘no more, this is not what we want in this city,’” said Ana Cano Morales, who was born and raised in Central Falls, has sat on the school board for the last decade.
But to the residents who support Wyatt, including former Finance Director Edna Poulin, the detention facility still benefits a community in need of businesses.
“They don’t bother anybody,” Poulin said. “They’re a good corporate citizen. They give back to the community. Some of the people live in this city, contributed to the economy of the city. I don’t know why you want to get rid of someone who’s like that. That’s a good corporation.
In recent years, the money from Wyatt has sometimes slowed to a trickle, but residents like Poulin say it’s in the city’s best interest to let the facility have a chance to dig itself out of its heavy debt.
That would at least put Wyatt in the position of repaying the $130 million in outstanding bonds, what the lawsuit is all about. But it wouldn’t necessarily mean money in Central Falls coffers.
“And if it’s not generating revenue, then what’s the reason to have it there?” said Gonzalo Cuervo. “That obviously gets compounded by the prison industry complex and about social justice. The conversation is changing to a level of social consciousness that didn’t exist before.”
Following the Wyatt board vote, ICE removed all immigration detainees being held in the facility. What the future holds for Wyatt, as a federal detention center, or something else, will likely be decided through the courts.