Wyatt Detention Facility Correctional Officer Put On Leave After Truck Drives Into Protesters
Above Photo: The Providence Journal/ Kris Craig
64-year-old Warren man seriously injured
CENTRAL FALLS — One protester was seriously injured after a black pickup truck drove into a crowd demonstrating at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility Wednesday night.
Officials at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility have placed a correctional officer on administrative leave after a pickup truck drove into protesters who were blocking the entrance to the facility’s employee parking lot Wednesday night.
Protest organizers said a 64-year-old man suffered a broken leg, internal bleeding and possibly a back injury. Amy Anthony, spokeswoman for Never Again Action, identified the man as Jerry Belair, of Warren.
She said another person, whom she could not identify, was also injured by the truck. She said three others — whom she identified as Christian Andrade, 74-year-old Ellen Bar-Zemer, and Evan Leferriere — were treated for exposure to pepper spray apparently used by officers to disperse the crowd. She said all five people had been released from the hospital by Thursday afternoon.
Telemundo said that one of its reporters, Cindy Bernal, was also hit by pepper spray that drifted toward a news van.
In a news release, Wyatt identified the officer on leave as Capt. Thomas Woodworth. A spokesman for the jail would not say whether Woodworth was the man driving the truck, but in video of the incident, protesters could be heard shouting his name as they surrounded the vehicle when it came to a stop.
“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 news release said. “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 attorney general’s office, the state police and the Central Falls police said they will investigate what happened Wednesday night.
“Once we have a full understanding of the relevant facts, we will determine how to proceed,” Attorney General Peter Neronha said in a statement. “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.”
“We are looking into any possible crime,” state police Maj. Timothy Sanzi said. “We just want to assure the public that we are doing a complete and thorough investigation.”
Sanzi added that witnesses are encouraged to contact the attorney general’s office or the state police major crimes unit.
The peaceful protest began at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Jenks Park on Broad Street in Central Falls. It was organized by Never Again Action, a Jewish protest group that has been demonstrating at Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices and detention centers nationally. Wyatt has been the focus of protests since March, when it began accepting ICE detainees.
Protesters marched from Jenks Park to the jail. Videos taken from the scene at about 9:50 p.m. showed protesters in yellow T-shirts sitting at the entrance to the employee parking lot and chanting slogans. The videos show a black pickup truck suddenly accelerating toward and stopping just short of the protesters.
The protesters then stood, and some started banging on the hood of the truck. It then pushed forward again, and protesters screamed.
J. Aaron Regunberg, a former state representative and candidate for lieutenant governor, posted one of the videos.
“Tonight, a captain from the Wyatt drove into a line of peaceful protesters,” Regunberg posted on Facebook. “Then prison guards pepper-sprayed us. If they’ll do this to us, think about the violence that immigrant detainees are subject to every day.
“This is why we’re here. No system this violent can be allowed to continue.”
In another video, tweeted out by UpriseRI’s Steve Ahlquist, the pickup truck driver could be seen wearing a Wyatt uniform and speaking into a handheld radio after driving into the crowd. Other guards, one claiming to be a federal officer, then arrived and ordered the protesters to move back.
Regunberg said local police at the scene declined to intervene, arrest the driver, or take down witness statements when approached by protesters.
“I also want to make very clear that literally dozens of us from tonight’s protest asked, clamored, demanded that the police take witness statements about the attack, and they actively refused to do so,” Regunberg said.
The chief of the Central Falls Police Department, Col. Daniel J. Barzykowski, said the accusation was false.
“That is absolutely not true,” Barzykowski said. “We asked anyone [who] saw anything to come to the station and file a report” because of the large number of people on the scene.
In calling for the attorney general and the City of Central Falls to investigate, the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union called the incident “unconscionable.”
State, local, and federal politicians from Rhode Island expressed their opinions on social media.
“Expecting swift and decisive action by law enforcement,” said House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, R-Block Island. “The actions by the truck driver don’t appear to be in self defense, or defense of others, from imminent harm — the only justification for violence.”
“I share the outrage Rhode Islanders are feeling about the incident depicted in the video at the Wyatt Detention Center,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said in a statement. “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.”
“Very disturbing videos taken last night outside the Wyatt Detention Facility,” said U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline on Twitter. “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.”
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tweeted: “RI was founded on the principle of tolerance & there is no place here for any assault on peaceful protestors. This incident needs to be thoroughly investigated & those responsible must be held accountable.”
“Like many Rhode Islanders, I was dismayed to watch last night’s attack on the Never Again peaceful demonstration at the Wyatt Detention Center,” said Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. “The right to protest against government policies is a core American value.
“This incident is also a painful reminder on the dangers of privatizing our prisons,” she continued. “When companies profit from putting people behind bars, you create an economy that does not value immigration or criminal justice reform. You also get situations like the one last night at Wyatt where the safety and constitutional rights of people are put at serious risk.”
There were no reports of protesters being arrested.
John Mohan, a spokesman for ICE, said that agency personnel were not involved in the response to the protest, and released a statement saying that “misinformation about the ICE mission continues to shroud the agency’s critical law-enforcement function and unnecessarily puts communities and ICE personnel at risk.”