Since March of this year, activists have been calling on the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to end its policy of housing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees. In April, the controversy around the facility escalated into a lawsuit that involves one of Kansas City’s wealthiest art world scions.
Mariner Kemper, CEO and chairman of UMB Financial Corp (UMB Bank), a $7 billion bank holding company, is also a trustee at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which was founded by his parents, R. Crosby Kemper Jr. and Mary “Bebe” Hunt, in 1994. UMB Bank, owned and managed by multiple generations of the Kemper family, represents the bondholders for the Wyatt, a publicly owned and privately operated prison that defines itself as a “non-profit, quasi-public detention facility.” In April, the company sued the city of Central Falls and the chair of the detention center’s board of directors, Joseph Molina Flynn, for their decision to stop receiving ICE detainees into the facility. The company’s complaint, filed in US District Court in Providence, claimed that removal of ICE detainees from the facility would have a negative effect on the Wyatt’s assets and demanded $130 million in damages. In addition, UMB Bank seeks to place a temporary restraining order against the Wyatt’s city-appointed board, asking to stop it from interfering in the management of the facility.
A backlash on social media soon followed. Politically outspoken artist Molly Crabapple reposted a call to the public urging them to contact the Kemper Museum and demand removing “trustees who collaborate with ICE.” The image was originally posted by the Fang Collective, a community organizing and direct action group that fights against ICE detentions. The collective has been conducting social media and phone campaigns against UMB bank since June. In August, they started targeting the Kemper Museum but received no official response, the group told Hyperallergic in an email.
“The Kemper Museum has five people on their Board of Trustees who either currently or recently worked for UMB: Mariner Kemper, Sandy Kemper, L. Joshua Sosland, Clyde Wendel, and Dennis Rilinger,” June Kramer, a member of Fang Collective, wrote Hyperallergic in an email. “UMB and Kemper, and by association the Kemper Museum, are complicit in the inhumane detention of people by ICE and the prison system. When confronted with this reality, they have ignored it, thereby condoning it,” she added.
The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Wyatt Detention Center has been long embroiled in a series of controversies, some of which ended in the death of inmates at the facility. Most recently, US Marshals’s detainee Gilbert Delestre, who had been held at the facility since July 2, 2019, died at Rhode Island Hospital on Sunday, August 25. According to the Wyatt, the detainee was “closely monitored” due to his chronic health conditions. “Warden Daniel Martin has personally reviewed all aspects of Mr. Delestre’s access to medical care and determined that all Wyatt protocols were followed,” the company told the website GoLocalProv. On August 15, during a protest outside Wyatt, a detention center captain drove his truck into a group of protestors from activist group Never Again Action, injuring two, as seen in a video that went viral on Twitter.
The facility first came under increased scrutiny in 2008 after the death of 34-year-old Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng, who suffered from “cruel, inhumane, malicious and sadistic behavior” at the facility, according to a lawsuit filed by the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The facility ignored Ng’s pleas for help for months as he was dying of liver cancer, the suit said. The suit ended in a multi-million dollar settlement on behalf of Ng’s family. Following the tragedy, ICE canceled its contract with the Wyatt to hold immigrant detainees. In March 2019, however, ICE reversed its decision and sent 133 detainees to the facility. The agency’s contract with the Wyatt reserved 225 beds to immigrant detainees captured at the Mexican border. As of April 2019, the Wyatt held about 60 ICE detainees, according to a report by the Providence Journal.
But the city of Central Falls, which co-runs the facility, claims it was never aware of the contract and never approved it. On April 5, the Wyatt’s board, appointed by Central Fall’s mayor James A. Diossa, suspended the facility’s contract with ICE and directed the prison’s warden, Daniel W. Martin, to return the detainees to ICE within seven days. Mayor Diossa and all members of the City Council who voted “Yes” on the decision are listed as defendants in UMB Bank’s lawsuit. Two councilmembers were left out of the lawsuit: Robert Ferri, who voted “No” on the decision, and Agostinho Silva, who recused himself from the proceedings, as he is also a member of Wyatt’s board of directors. The company is also suing each of the facility’s directors, except for Silva.
In an exchange of letters prior to the lawsuit, Adrienne K. Walker, a lawyer for UMB Bank from the law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky, and Popeo, accused Mayor Diossa and other city officials of inciting demonstrations against the Wyatt, thus putting the staff and detainees at risk. “Your actions to incite demonstrations at the Wyatt is reckless and directly threatens the safety of the detainees and the Corporation’s dedicated employees,” Walker wrote the mayor in a letter. “The Mayor’s intentional interference with the Corporation’s business operations and contractual relationships that raise significant legal issues and exposure for the Mayor, the City and State,” she continued. Walker attributed two demonstrations in late March to the Mayor, and claimed that the protestors were “inciting hundreds of detainees to react.” Walker was reacting to an earlier statement Diossa made in a community meeting about the issue in March. “I will not stand by this as the Wyatt attempts to profit from the exploitation of human misery and the separation of families,” the mayor said in the meeting, “I never knew that they were bringing in inmates on this zero base tolerance initiative by Donald Trump.”
“The change in prisoner composition at the Wyatt was not approved by the board of the corporation and was communicated to the board and the city in a false light,” Nicholas J. Hemond, the attorney representing the city, wrote to UMB’s lawyers on April 8. “The detention of these recent arrivals at the Wyatt is abhorrent to the ethos of the city, a predominantly immigrant and first-generation American city,” Hemond continued. “This municipal detention center was meant to be an asset to the people of the city, not a source of fear, panic and distress to the residents.”
Attorney Adrienne K. Walker has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, the Fang Collective promised to continue putting pressure on the Kemper Museum in the near future. “The Kemper Museum is ostensibly a progressive and diverse institution, but this must be called into question given their association with ICE,” Kramer said. “It’s important to hold all institutions with any ties to ICE and/or prisons accountable. A just world would have no family separation, no detention, and no prisons.”
UPDATE, 8/30/19: The UMB Bank emailed Hyperallergic the following statement in response to this report (emphasis theirs):
UMB serves as the indenture trustee for municipal bonds issued by Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation, an agency created by the City of Central Falls, Rhode Island. Municipal bonds are issued to lenders or investors to raise money for a governmental body or a project in the public interest. The issuer hires a third-party indenture trustee, usually a bank or trust company, to represent the interests of the bond holders.
DOES NOT have any operational control or management authority over the facility.
DOES NOT have an investment stake in the facility.
DOES NOT direct the operations of the facility.
Bond trustees serve in specific and defined roles:
Municipal bonds are issued to lenders or investors to raise money for a governmental body or a project in the public interest. These projects can include construction or repair of roads and bridges, schools, senior living facilities, hospitals and similar public facilities.
The issuer must hire a third-party bond trustee, usually a bank or trust company, to represent the interests of the bond holders.
UMB’s obligation as indenture trustee is to enforce the bond obligations against the facility. That obligation runs to 2035.