Immigration detainees pulled from Wyatt detention center

CENTRAL FALLS — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, without explanation, yesterday began transferring all 153 of its immigration detainees housed at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility to other jails and prisons around the Northeast.

The sudden decision comes as a team of investigators from ICE headquarters in Washington and elsewhere is expected to arrive today to look into the death of Hiu Lui Ng, a 34-year old Chinese national who died in August while in Wyatt custody.

Lawyers for Ng, a computer engineer from New York, said he was denied medical care both at Wyatt and a Vermont jail where ICE has contracted for bed space. Ng had a fractured spine and died from complications from cancer.

Dante Bellini, spokesman for Wyatt, confirmed yesterday that ICE had begun moving inmates from Central Falls to other jails. In the morning, about 30 female prisoners were shackled, handcuffed and taken away in vans from the Suffolk County, Mass., Sheriff’s Department.

The transfers will continue until all the immigrants are relocated, an effort that could take several days.

Bellini said that ICE did not give a reason for the mass transfer or say whether it will stop sending immigrant detainees to Wyatt.

“We can’t say anything definitively,” he said. “It’s bizarre to us. We honestly don’t know what is motivating ICE to make this decision. We absolutely have cooperated with every investigative body.”

But on Friday, ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said the agency would send Wyatt no new detainees, that it had sent experts to “directly monitor conditions at Wyatt” and that it was “taking all reasonable steps to ensure the safety and well-being of the 153 remaining detainees.”

Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for ICE in Boston, said ICE relocated the detainees “while a full review of the facility is conducted.” She said the relocation of the detainees was completed last night, and that most of the detainees were moved to other facilities in New England.

Attorneys and consular officials were being notified, she said. Family members can call the ICE hot line at (866) 341-3858 to determine where relatives have been relocated.

Bellini said that ICE is the only federal agency to remove its prisoners. He refused to provide details about an internal probe into Ng’s death that was conducted by a team of former state and local police detectives that work for the detention center.

Last fall, following Ng’s death, Wyatt suspended with pay a veteran captain who was in charge of preparing the cancer-ridden prisoner for a move to another prison, in Connecticut. Two other corrections officers, who remain on the job, also are under investigation.

An affidavit by Andy Wong, one of Ng’s lawyers, filed in U.S. District Court in Providence, states that Ng told him that he was forcibly dragged from his cell into an ICE transport van by five agents for the trip to Connecticut. He allegedly suffered bruised feet and legs. He was returned to Wyatt the same day.

Ng, who was married with two children and had no criminal record, died on Aug. 6, about a week after the move to Connecticut.

Wyatt officials have denied that Ng was denied medical attention. They claim that he received medical care, including trips to outside hospitals, 13 times during a 25-day period that he spent in Central Falls last summer.

The loss of more than 150 prisoners could have a crippling effect on Wyatt, run by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corp., a nonprofit that works closely with officials in Central Falls. The government reimburses the facility about $100 per day for each prisoner housed.

Based on those numbers, the prison stands to lose about $100,000 a week, or nearly a third of its income.

Bellini said the loss of money is “huge and will have serious financial implications” for Wyatt and the Central Falls. He pointed out that the detention center gives the city an annual impact fee of $600,000 in lieu of taxes.

Wyatt can house more than 700 immigration detainees and others charged with federal crimes in Rhode Island, New England and other parts of the country. Federal marshals and guards from the detention facility transport them to court appearances in places such as Providence, Boston, Worcester, Hartford and New Haven.

It’s too soon to tell what impact the transfers will have on the federal court system in Rhode Island.

U.S. District Judge William E. Smith said his concern is that prisoners scheduled to make appearances in his court arrive in a timely fashion. He said that it’s up to the marshals to pick them up and bring them to court.

“I don’t really have a good sense” of what is happening with the immigration detainees, Smith said. “I’m expecting at some point that there would be some kind of briefing or discussion with us.”

Thomas Connell, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Robert Clark Corrente, said that his office is concerned only about the accused getting to court, regardless of where they are being housed. He said the cases of most of the immigration detainees pass through federal immigration courts — not federal criminal courts.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has continued to provide legal representation to the Ng family. Steven Brown, the affiliate’s executive director, said he has “mixed feelings” about ICE’s decision to remove all the immigrant detainees from Wyatt. He said that it shows the agency has concerns about how the jail handles seriously ill prisoners, but it also imposes “a significant hardship on the family members,” of Rhode Islanders housed there.

Now, he said, the families and their lawyers will have to wait to find out where the prisoners have been transferred, and it could involve travel of several hundred miles.

“ICE engages in a chess game with these detainees anyway,” Brown said. “This only heightens the problem.”



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