CENTRAL FALLS – North Smithfield School Committee Chairman James Lombardi has officially taken over the role as head of the board that governs the Wyatt Detention Facility, and made an appeal this week to those who have been protesting the troubled prison, asking that they not disrupt future operations.
The prison is governed by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation, and has been in the spotlight for the past year over contracts with the federal government to house detainees brought in by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Lombardi, a North Smithfield resident who also serves as treasurer for the city of Providence, struck a somewhat conciliatory tone addressing protestors, noting that the prison is under a court order to operate and take ICE detainees.
“I would like to be clear that this board is made up of people that are responsible to the community and deeply care about all of the detainees that are housed in this facility,” Lombardi said at his first meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 30. “Many of the things that people are here to object to are beyond our control and although we want to hear your objections, there is nothing we can do to change federal immigration policy or the federal court
order we are subject to.”
The board also voted Wednesday to approve a forbearance agreement with
the facility’s bond holders, and to extend the contract of Warden Daniel Martin for two years, with an option for an additional two years.
The decisions are just the start of an effort to restore stability to the facility, established in 1993 with a quasi-public form of operation, a structure critics note adds profit motive to incarceration.
The prison is currently under a mandatory quota to house 625 ICE detainees a day. Bond holders sued the jail corporation over a decision in April to suspend the previous agreement to hold 225.
It is also is reportedly more than $130 million in debt.
But Lombardi, who brought a similar approach to uniting divided factions in town when he was elected chairman of the North Smithfield school board in 2015, was chosen for the job because of his diverse background, which includes budgeting, finance, debt workouts, and governance. An attorney and certified public accountant, the chairman has been a popular school board leader, touting support for both improvements and fiscal stability.
His was named to the Wyatt position by Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, an appointment that required approval of both the Central Falls City Council and the prison board.
“He has an extensive track record of community engagement, including providing pro-bono legal and accounting services,” noted a release on the confirmation.
In a statement, Lombardi said the board has ideas on how to restructure the Wyatt.
“I understand that some of you want the Wyatt shut down and I will tell
you that is simply not an option,” he said Wednesday. “Some of you would like to disrupt the board and possibly frustrate us enough to quit or not hold public meetings, I would argue this is a big mistake.”
“This board is accountable to the public and if we are not here, a trustee in receivership will operate this facility without any public input,” Lombardi said. “Public input is something we support and encourage.”
The chairman said he toured the facility, and that “all detainees are being treated humanely, and have access to all of the legal, health care, and religious services they are required to be afforded.”
He noted that in order to resolve Wyatt’s issues, the board will need to pay off bondholders, and they will need to take less than the outstanding amount that they are due.
“We will need federal, state, or city help to back the floating of a bond for the fair market value of this facility,” he said. “Once we establish a positive cash flow, we can then be more selective on detainees and restructure the Wyatt.”
He added that the prison is an economic generator for Central Falls, and the state of Rhode Island.
“It provides a much needed service to allow detainees’ access to the
Rhode Island Federal Courts,” Lombardi said.
The Wyatt is a maximum security, 770 bed facility that employs a staff of 271 people.
In August, the prison made national news when a worker drove into protestors blocking access to the prison. Activists have shut down several of the governing board’s meetings in recent months.
This week, Lombardi asked the public to remain respectful and refrain from intentionally disrupting the meeting.
“We further ask that your peaceful protests do not interfere with the operation of this detention facility,” he said. “We have a highly qualified Warden and management. We have highly trained correctional staff who understand the rights of the detainees they are entrusted to supervise and insure they have these rights met. I was impressed with the operations when I toured the facility.”