Transfers may lead to layoffs at Rhode Island’s Wyatt detention center

CENTRAL FALLS — The Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility is poised for “across-the-board” layoffs if the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not return or replace more than 150 immigrant detainees who were abruptly transferred from the jail last week.

Dante Bellini, spokesman for Wyatt, said the transfers — which came without explanation — will have a crippling effect on the detention center, which employs about 200 correctional officers, administrative staff, investigators and support staff.

The layoffs, he said, could begin soon after New Year’s Day.

Over the past two weeks, the prisoner population has dipped to about 500 and it has cost the jail about $200,000. The federal government reimburses Wyatt about $100 per day for each prisoner housed there.

“It is our fervent hope that we will be back at normal operations shortly,” said Bellini, who refused to disclose whether Wyatt officials have had ongoing conversations with representatives from ICE.

Paula Grenier, spokeswoman for ICE in Boston, said that her agency has not terminated its contract with Wyatt. She declined to say whether the 153 detainees removed from there last week and sent to local jails across New England will be returned. She also would not say whether ICE would send future detainees to Central Falls.

On Dec. 8, ICE removed the detainees as a team of its investigators from the Washington, D.C., headquarters and elsewhere descended on the jail to investigate the death of Hiu Lui Ng, a 34-year-old Chinese national who died last summer while in Wyatt’s custody.

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

In the days before his death, Ng, who lawyers say was in great pain and denied the use of a wheelchair, was moved to a jail in Hartford, Conn., to have a telephone conversation with his lawyer. The transfer puzzled U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith, who had a hearing for a preliminary injunction in his courtroom on July 31, less than a week before Ng’s death.

Ng’s lawyers requested the hearing because they alleged that their client had been refused medical care and access to counsel.

“Why would they take him from Wyatt to Hartford to talk to attorneys and talk to family members? That doesn’t make any sense. All the facilities are at Wyatt,” Smith said.

Richard Myrus, a prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s office, said, “I’m not sure, your honor. I don’t know exactly why that transpired that way.”

On the day of the transfer, a surveillance camera in the jail’s sally port captured several correctional officers hollering at Ng and forcibly loading him onto an ICE coach bus. One of the officers, a captain, has been suspended with pay, while two others who remain on the job are under investigation.

The sudden removal of immigrant detainees is not unprecedented.

In September 2007, ICE removed 600 immigrant detainees from the Regional Correctional Center, a federal detention center in Albuquerque, N.M. The transfers came 11 months after the death of a 60-year-old female detainee from South Korea, who died from metastasized pancreatic cancer.

ICE has yet to return or ship new immigrant detainees to the jail.

Central Falls Mayor Charles D. Moreau has been scrambling to get the 153 beds filled at Wyatt. He has been in touch with the state’s congressional delegation and he has spoken to Bruce Chadbourne, the field director for the ICE office in Boston.

He said that Chadbourne told him that he is awaiting instructions from the Department of Homeland Security in Washington.

Reached yesterday, Chadbourne said, “It’s being discussed at the headquarters level. Aside from that, I can’t say anything more.”

Moreau is worried about losing a portion of the $50,000-a-month impact fee it receives from Wyatt in lieu of taxes. He said that layoffs or reductions in services also have an adverse impact on local businesses such as janitorial and food suppliers that provide services for the jail.

Moreau said that he has spoken to Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, and has reached out to the offices of Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse.

Reed said that his staff is looking into the transfers and would like some answers from ICE.

Whitehouse, in a statement, called the transfer of the detainees a “serious issue that comes at a difficult time for Central Falls and Rhode Island.”

Moreau would like some immediate action.

“Rhode Island cannot afford to have any more people laid off,” he said. “It would be a nice Christmas present from [Kennedy] to call and say that we are getting the detainees back.”

It doesn’t look like Moreau will be getting the holiday call.

Kerrie Bennett, Kennedy’s spokeswoman, said that staff from her office has learned that ICE has no plans to return immigrant detainees to Wyatt pending the outcome of the investigation and litigation surrounding Ng’s death. She said that ICE gave her office no timetable on the probe’s conclusion.

source: http://www.projo.com/news/content/WYATT_FOLLOW_12-19-08_EBCLVDM_v20.3d593cb.html

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