CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) – One year after a stunning escape from the Wyatt Detention Center, city officials say they now plan to use an existing state system to notify the community if there is another break.
Following the escape of inmate James Morales on New Year’s Eve 2016, community leaders and the prison’s neighbors were upset they weren’t immediately notified. A report issued months later made a set of recommendations to try and prevent another incident, but said the prison was not “in the financial position to acquire and implement” an emergency alert system.
The report also said that no one from the community ever raised the issue of needing a community notification system to the current board of directors that oversees the prison since the members were impaneled in April 2015. However, the issue was a major topic of concern after a previous escape in 1996.
Now public safety officials in Central Falls say they will use the state’s CodeRED system to alert the community if it happens again. Central Falls Fire Chief Robert Bradley is one of the authorized officials who can send an alert out to the community for anything from snowstorm parking bans to another escape from the Wyatt.
“The CodeRED system is an emergency notification system that was purchased through the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency for all cities and towns,” Bradley said. “[An alert] can be done from a desktop terminal, from a laptop or something as easy as a cellphone.”
The system calls home phones automatically, but according to data from the Federal Communications Commission, fewer and fewer households have landlines in their homes as more people rely on their mobile devices. The CodeRED system requires mobile users to proactively sign up to the service in order to get the notifications.
As of Nov. 1, only 77 people in Central Falls have signed on to receive text messages. The city has roughly 19,000 residents.
“We’ve been trying to get [the numbers] up a lot higher,” Bradley said acknowledging there is a reluctance, especially among the immigrant community, to sign on to a system that is tied to city public safety agencies. But they said they are trying to ease people’s concerns.
“Every time there is a festival, whether it’s in the city or there’s a job fair somewhere or something where there are a lot of people involved, Pawtucket [and] Central Falls has a booth set up with the information that they can sign up,” Bradley said.
An investigation into last year’s escape determined Morales climbed a basketball hoop then used a makeshift cutting device to cut through a chain link fence, making his way onto the prison roof. From there, Morales used a bed sheet he had hidden under his clothes to scale down the wall before running along train tracks away from the prison.
Morales was captured five days later in Somerville, Massachusetts. He has pleaded guilty to one count of escape from custody and is scheduled to be sentenced in February.
A request to interview Wyatt Detention Center Warden Daniel Martin was denied. Christopher Hunter, a spokesperson for the facility, said several “remedial actions have been taken” following the escape. Among them: removing the basketball hoop from the recreation yard, enhancing body searches “for all detainees entering recreation yards,” continuous monitoring of the recreational yards and “enhanced physical plant security and control features.”
The Wyatt has requested bids from companies to build another fence around the facility. U.S. Marshal for Rhode Island Jamie Hainsworth said the fence proposal – which needs approval by the Wyatt board of directors – is part of the set of recommendations issued following the escape, and will partially be funded by the federal government.
Prison population has dropped
While the Wyatt is overseen by a nonprofit board of directors, it is privately run and relies almost entirely on revenue from government agencies that pay the prison per detainee.
In 2014, the facility was placed into receivership after numbers plummeted when Immigration and Customs Enforcement stopped sending detainees there after a Chinese national died while in custody in 2009.
The prison – which can hold a maximum of 770 detainees – emerged from receivership a year later, and population numbers began to inch up again. Records show right before the Morales escape, there were 523 detainees at the Wyatt. Following the incident, the population dropped again, getting down to an average of 390 detainees a day in May 2016.
“Plymouth County Sherriff yanked a lot of their prisoners out,” Bradley said. “There was a steady streamline of buses going down Broad Street taking their prisoners out.”
Population numbers are on the rise again, but slowly. Hunter said the October average daily population was at 406.
In an agreement with Central Falls, the prison is supposed to pay the city a monthly payment of $16,666. A spokesperson for Mayor James Diossa said the city has not received the payment since August.
Hunter said the payments “were temporarily suspended and will resume when the population increases.”
Despite the financial struggles that continue for the prison, Bradley said he thinks the Wyatt is on the rebound.
“I have a lot of confidence in the people down at the Wyatt,” Bradley said. “I think they definitely have an idea of what they need to do and how they need to do and I think they are trying very hard to make sure that does not happen again.”