Detention, Incarceration, Deportation

The Wyatt Detention Center and the national prison-industrial complex

by Leela Berman

Illustration by Georgianna Stoukides

published March 3, 2020



The Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility is located across from a park. A wide expanse of grass—often filled with kids playing soccer or used for school graduations—stops inches from the road. On the other side of the grass is a concrete building, towering ominously, severed from the street by a giant barbed wire fence. The Wyatt exists in a perilous in-between space: between a park and a river, between private and public, between the local and the federal. It is a testament to the fact that, in the United States, detention, incarceration, and deportation impact communities and national politics in a vicious cycle. Established in 1993, the Wyatt Detention Facility is publicly owned and privately operated: although owned and administered by the city of Central Falls, out-of-state corporations own shares in the Wyatt. It was one of the first prisons under private control in the United States.

Central Falls, the city where the Wyatt is located, is small, with a population of about 19,500. In the 1990s, like many small cities, Central Falls struggled with poverty and unemployment. According to Tal Friedman, an organizer for Never Again Action RI, in the 1990s, the Central Falls City Council was forced into choosing between a “garbage dump and prison” for job creation. It chose the prison. This decision ties into a larger trend of the 20th century where prison was seen as a “new, recession-proof, non-polluting industry [which] would jump-start local redevelopment,” writes geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Furthermore, the history of mass incarceration is inextricably tied to the history of racism and the legacy of slavery—the overpolicing and criminalizing of communities of color, especially Black communities, and the use of prison labor as allowed by the 13th Amendment—make prisons racist instutions.

At the Wyatt, profit and racial control go hand-in-hand. The Wyatt was supposed to bring jobs and prosperity to Central Falls, but in 2011, the city filed for bankruptcy. In January of 2019, in an attempt to gain some sort of profit, the Wyatt signed a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to incarcerate people who had been detained at the US border. This little prison, in a city of fewer than 20,000, became part of a project to control the racial demography of the nation.

A year after this contract, on January 22nd, 2020, Rhode Island State Treasurer Seth Magaziner announced that the Rhode Island Pension Fund would divest from private prisons. This is a disjointed narrative because the Wyatt is not a conventional “private prison.” Still, divestment is deeply connected to the discourse surrounding the Wyatt through years of activism and community organizing. When Central Falls announced the new ICE contract in March of 2019, Alianza para Movilizar Nuestra Resistencia (AMOR) began a months-long battle: one that started with trying to stop the contract with ICE, grew to #ShutDownWyatt, and then became a mission to ban private prisons in Rhode Island.     



The carceral history of Central Falls mirrors a national story of prison expansion that started in the 1980s—a history which is inextricably tied with the rise of private prisons. In 1993, the landscape of private prisons looked far different than it does today. The first corporation to engage in the “business of prison,” now known as CoreCivic, started operations in 1984, as a result of rapid mass incarceration in the wake of the Reagan administration’s racist “War on Drugs.” Private prisons make money by expanding incarceration and cutting down on the costs of prison maintenance. It is important to keep in mind that the problem is not just with private prisons or with immigration detention. It’s not about pitting private prisons against public prisons. Both private and public prisons mistreat incarcerated people. Still, it is valuable to see how private prisons play a vital role in the incarceration and deportation machine, which prospers from profit and racial control. Furthermore, the abuse in private prisons is distinctive: a 2016 report by the Justice Department found that private prisons were violent and prisoners were deeply mistreated, even more so than in government-owned prisons. Immigration detention centers, private and public, have come under fire in the last few years as a result of allegations of violence, harassment, and mistreatment of incarcerated people by correctional officers.

The relationship between private prisons and immigration detention is key. According to the nonprofit The Sentencing Project, 73% of people in immigration detention were held in privately-owned facilities in 2017. The United States border-to-prison pipeline, where people are detained at the US border for and then forced into prisons all over the States, is supported by a system of profit for private companies which rely on locking people up for immigration violations. The growth in privatization goes hand-in-hand with “crimmigration,” the extensive criminalizing of migration—and reflects a larger shift in the prison-industrial complex to fuel incarceration through policing migration. Friedman, of Never Again Action RI, explained that one of the reasons that the Wyatt returned to ICE contracting after a 2009 abuse case is that criminalizing immigration has become “a source of revenue for prisons across the country, continuing the dual-mechanism of racism and profit that fuels prison decision-making.” A Justice Department report from last August notes that in 1998, 63% of federal arrests were of US citizens. Twenty years later, however, 64% were non-citizens, largely due to an increase in arrests for “immigration offenses.” In other words, the “War on Drugs” expanded prisons, and the “War on Immigration” maintains them. Both leave wreckage and despair in their wake in the hopes of profiting from mass incarceration and using mass incarceration to maintain a system of racialized control.



The Wyatt embodies the profit-hungry nature of the carceral complex. In its time, it has shifted between many forms of profit-maximization, despite continuing to rack up debt. A brief summary of these many twists and turns to grapple with the Wyatt’s financial woes are essential to understanding its current positioning: $106.7 million was invested in 2005 by private bondholders, including national corporations like UMB Financial, a Kentucky-based bank, and INVESCO, an investment management company. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract to house detained immigrants in 2006 ended in an investigation of rampant abuse and a rapid shift to supplying rooms for Navy personnel under General Court-Martial Convening Authority. Whether you see it as a failed venture or a failing one, the Wyatt remains for two reasons: a desire by investors to turn prison into profit and a system of using prison as a form of racial control.

Bondholders, who hold shares in the Wyatt from the 2005 deal, continue to have power over the direction of the Wyatt. Once they had invested, they needed the facility to make money—regardless of the human cost. In 2006, the Wyatt began to contract with ICE to imprison people arrested for immigration offenses. In 2008, this relationship ended when Hui Li “Jason” Ng, a computer engineer from Queens, NY, passed away from undiagnosed liver cancer while detained inside the Wyatt. An ICE investigation revealed that he had suffered gross abuse by correctional officers, including being refused a wheelchair and enduring constant harassment. After Ng’s death, 153 ICE prisoners were relocated, and a Prison Legal News article from 2009 explained that because “the jail relies heavily on government contracts...the removal of ICE prisoners seriously affected its profitability.”

No statement better encapsulates this profit incentive then a comment made by the Wyatt’s director in 2009, Daniel Cooney, who said in an interview to a Providence Journal reporter: “[I’m] looking at it like I’m running a Motel 6 ... I don’t care if it’s Guantanamo Bay. We want to fill the beds.” We want to fill the beds. The Mayor of Central Falls promptly fired Cooney, multiple organizations held protests outside the jail, and the ACLU of RI sued dozens of officials and employees at the Wyatt and lobbied for the state to reject all contracts with ICE. Of course, due to the profit motive, the ICE contract murkily returned, ten years later, in no small part due to pressure from private companies which are stakeholders in the Wyatt.

Although the Wyatt isn’t strictly private, it needs to make money to pay back the private bonds it took out in 2005 and to fund its private operation. Now, the Wyatt is used partially to imprison people awaiting trial or serving sentences in Rhode Island, but largely imprisons people arrested for immigration offenses across the nation, especially people detained at the border who cannot pay bail. The corporate project to profit off prison and the state project to control racial demography transcend state borders. Profit determines the direction of the prison-industrial complex, and the pattern of increased racist federal arrests related to immigration is represented in the Wyatt’s turn back to the ICE contract. This time, though, organizers across Rhode Island were ready to make their protests heard.



On a phone call, Arely Díaz, one of the lead organizers of AMOR, explained: “AMOR wasn’t created to make political campaigns, but the ICE contract was just so atrocious that...we had to do something.” Although AMOR wanted to provide direct support to those personally affected by state violence, giving emotional, financial, and legal support to community members, they still participated in protest. As Díaz details, “We held a march from City Hall to the Wyatt, that was the first action/demonstration against the Wyatt and their new ICE contract.” Since then, AMOR has been a key organization in the grassroots mobilization around the Wyatt, shaping the discourse around its closure by emphasizing the fundamental injustice of the ICE contract and the absolute harm the Wyatt has done in the Central Falls community. This discourse, which equates prison to harm, is in direct conflict with the original rationale behind the Wyatt and the ideology of its bondholders: rison is profit.

Díaz highlighted the complexity of trying to shut down the Wyatt amid these two competing visions for the prison. The Mayor of Central Falls, James Diossa, made a statement advocating for the Wyatt’s closure and, as a result of immense public protest and political pressure, the Wyatt’s mayor-appointed board suspended the contract with ICE on April 5 of last year. Soon after, the bondholders of the Wyatt, including UMB Bank, filed a lawsuit demanding that the Wyatt continue to receive ICE detainees. The lawsuit also tried to get a restraining order against the city’s board, alleging that it should stop interfering with the Wyatt’s decision-making. Now, the Wyatt is in lawsuit limbo, but continues to house around 120 ICE detainees, whose lives have been put on hold as this case continues. AMOR, Never Again RI, and other community organizations have continued to organize around shutting down the Wyatt. AMOR not only operates their #ShutDownWyatt campaign by putting political pressure on RI and investors in the Wyatt to divest, but also raises bail for people detained inside.

Díaz noted that one of the most emotional parts of organizing was seeing how it mattered to the people on the inside—and how those people shaped their own discourse connecting detention and incarceration. None of the people who are detained in the Wyatt can see the public protests that AMOR holds in front of it from their cells, but other incarcerated people can, and they bang on the windows, cheer, and write “Shut down the Wyatt” on pieces of paper. Díaz emphasized: “Detention and incarceration, it’s the same thing. We’re fighting for the end of incarceration and detention as a whole.” The discourse connecting incarceration and detention was also present in AMOR’s community gathering on February 14th.



AMOR’s community gathering, ¡Celebrando Nuestra Comunidad y Resistencia! (“Celebrating Our Community and Resistance”), was full of food. Olive bread, dumplings, empanadas, a vegan cake with “Fuck ICE” written in frosting, mac’n’cheese, rice and beans decorated with the Puerto Rican flag. Signs decorated the space, the headquarters of Providence Youth Student Movement: “migration is beautiful;” “no human being is illegal;” “keep families together: stop deportation.”

Above the main dishes, a sign from a previous protest at the Wyatt asked, “What would you like to see replace the Wyatt?” Answers ranged from “a community garden” to an “amphitheater” to “affordable housing” to a “centro de communidad” (community center). Another sign asked what amor, communidad, y justicia (love, community, and justice) meant to the people who entered. Some of the answers includes “a world liberated,” “no incarceration,” and “no borders.” Although AMOR was only founded in 2017, it has already launched a support line. In just a few years, it has supported community members hurt by immigration policy and grown a sense of community imagination: envisioning a world without the Wyatt, and more specifically, a Central Falls that takes community needs and desires into consideration.

Near the desserts, a sign near the window proclaimed “Migra. Policia: la misma porqueria” (Immigration enforcement, police: the same crap), echoing on a very local level the historical relationship between incarceration and detention that exists in plain sight, well known to the communities that endure its harm. Prison and detention are two sides of the same cruel capitalist coin.

AMOR recognizes this. Díaz concluded the interview by saying that she “just want[ed] to emphasize that this fight is about the ICE contract, but it’s also about the facility itself.” AMOR wants not just to change the conditions of the Wyatt but to shut it down. One suggestion made in a 2012 report about the Wyatt’s debt was that it could be sold in order to remove the burden of management from the Central Falls government, thereby becoming fully private. Given current tensions and the abusive profit-maximizing nature of private prisons, it is important for AMOR to prevent that from happening.



It was in no small part because of AMOR’s organizing, including multiple meetings with State Treasurer Seth Magaziner, that Rhode Island will divest from private prisons. In his January 25th announcement, Magaziner called divestment the “moral and responsible thing to do.” As Díaz stated, “We want to know that Rhode Island wasn’t doing anything to support private prisons,” and added that on January 29th Magaziner wrote a letter to Martin Flanagan, the CEO of Invesco, the largest investor in the Wyatt, asking that Invesco “work with relevant stakeholders to take any measures available to address the concerns of community members in the Wyatt dispute.” This centers the Central Falls community itself in protesting against the Wyatt—the very community the Wyatt was supposedly established to help. Díaz noted, of course, that the announcement of divestment didn’t end AMOR’s dedication to support those detained within the Wyatt, especially because the Wyatt continues to hold its contract with ICE. Friedman stated that it was a great step in the “direction of ethical investing,” but echoed Díaz’s claim that there is always more to be done.

Friedman also emphasized that the system of incarceration relies on violence. In August of 2019, Never Again RI organized a protest blocking the Wyatt’s entrance. There, correctional officers pepper-sprayed protestors and drove a truck into peaceful demonstrators. Despite injuries to protesters, later that year, the officer was not charged. “If the system is willing to enact so much violence in plain sight...all of the violence that goes on behind bars must be so much bigger,” Friedman explained.

Violence, especially racialized violence, is omnipresent in the system of carceral capitalism. This is, perhaps, the crux of the danger of the “prison is profit” mentality. A garbage dump or a prison. We have to fill the beds. Within the carceral logic, incarceration is an economic motor and the Wyatt is simply an attempt to deal with unemployment in Central Falls. It is through community organizing, the questioning of the Wyatt’s purpose and sketching better uses of community resources, that this logic erodes.


LEELA BERMAN B’23 agrees with Angela Davis and thinks prisons are obsolete.