Thomas Woodworth is a correctional officer at Wyatt Detention Facility who drove his pickup truck into anti-ICE protesters at the Rhode Island federal prison during a protest against the Trump administration’s immigration policies led by the Jewish group Never Again Action. Woodworth, a 53-year-old captain at the privately run facility, has been placed on leave amid an investigation into his actions.
Two people were injured by Woodworth’s truck and three others were hospitalized from injuries suffered in the aftermath of the protesters being rammed at the entrance to the prison in Central Falls, Rhode Island, Never Again Action organizers say. Correctional officers used pepper spray on the protesters after they were hit by the truck, video shows.
The protest is one of many being held by Never Again Action around the country. It began about 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 14, at Jenks Park in Central Falls, as protesters gathered and marched to the Wyatt Detention Facility, the Providence Journal reports. The peaceful protest turned violent about 9:50 p.m. when Woodworth drove his pickup truck into protesters blocking a parking lot at the entrance to the prison’s employee parking lot.
No protesters were arrested. About 600 protesters took part in the gathering, with about 30 blocking the entrance to the parking lot, the Boston Herald reports. The Never Again Action group has used #JewsAgainstICE as they’ve led dozens of protests at ICE facilities around the country, demanding better treatment of detainees and for immigration policies to be changed.
The Providence Journal reported in May 2019 that more than 100 ICE detainees were being held at the prison, which is publicly owned, but privately operated by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation. Wyatt also houses U.S. Marshals Service detainees, who are typically awaiting federal trial, along with Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates, U.S. Navy detainees and detainees of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. Daniel Martin has served as the prison’s warden since 2015.
Woodworth could not be reached for comment by Heavy.
Never Again Action says on its website, “We’ve been taught the signs by our ancestors. As our government runs concentration camps, and rounds up and cages our neighbors, we are called to speak out: #NeverAgainIsNow. Please join us and our immigrant allies in the fight to #ShutDownICE, #CloseTheCamps and stop the roundups and deportations.”
Here’s what you need to know about Thomas Woodworth:
1. A Filmmaker Recording the Protest Said He Thought He Was Taking Video of ‘the Next Heather Heyer’ Moment
A video, which can be seen above, recorded by Never Again Action, which you can watch above, shows protesters chanting and holding signs, with several blocking the employee parking lot entrance at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island. The protesters were there from Never Again Providence, an offshoot of the national organization.
About 30 seconds in the video, a black pickup truck can be heard honking as it speeds toward protesters sitting on the ground in the parking lot entrance. The protesters start yelling and stand up, as the truck continues to inch forward. Some of the protesters start banging on the truck’s hood as it continues toward them. Suddenly, the truck’s driver, identified as Thomas Woodworth, accelerates forward at several of the protesters, knocking some to the ground. The protesters continue to scream and yell, “shame,” at Woodworth.
Never Again Action wrote on Twitter,”Here is HD video of an ICE guard driving his truck into us as we sat peacefully blocking the Wyatt Detention Center. We’re putting our bodies on the line because we see the camps and the roundups. We’ve learned from our ancestors: NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE.”
Filmmaker Sam Eilertsen, who was recording video for Never Again Action, told the Boston Globe, “It was shocking and horrifying. I was panicking and thought, ‘Am I filming the next Heather Heyer moment?'”
Heyer was killed in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a neo-Nazi drove his car into counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” rally.
The protesters were then pepper-sprayed by other detention center officers, and that was also caught on video. Other videos show the incident and the aftermath:
“After the first ICE guard ran us over with his truck, the rest of them ran over & pepper-sprayed us. The police present just stood by and watched, doing nothing,” Never Again Action tweeted. Central Falls Police and the Rhode Island State Police were both at the scene.
J. Aaron Regunberg, a former Rhode Island state representative and lieutenant governor candidate, tweeted video from the scene and wrote, “Tonight, a captain from the Wyatt drove into a line of peaceful protesters. Then prison guards pepper sprayed us. If they’ll do this to us, think about the violence that immigrant detainees are subject to, every day. This is why we’re here. No system this violent can be allowed to continue.”
According to the Providence Journal, five protesters were hospitalized. Jerry Belair, a 64-year-old man from Warren, Rhode Island, suffered a broken leg, internal bleeding and a possible back injury, organizers told the Journal. Another person, who was not identified, was also injured by the truck. Three protesters were hospitalized after being pepper sprayed. Telemundo said its reporter, Cindy Bernal, was also hit by pepper spray.
Another tweet from Never Again Action said, “Tonight we experienced a tiny sample of the violence ICE uses on our immigrant neighbors every day. An ICE guard drove his truck into our peaceful #JewsAgainstICE protest, then other guards came out and pepper sprayed the crowd. We’ll be back. … We formed 6 weeks ago. Since then we’ve done 36 actions across the country, shutting down dozens of ICE detention centers and field offices, including ICE Headquarters in DC. We’re just getting started.”
2. He Previously Worked as a Correctional Officer for the State of Connecticut & Was Named in an Excessive Force Lawsuit in 2007
Thomas Woodworth previously worked as a correctional officer for the state of Connecticut Department of Corrections, according to online records. He last worked for the Connecticut DOC in 2010, and appears to have left the department that year. He was working as a guard at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center, a high-security prison, in Uncasville, Connecticut, at the time.
Woodworth was named in a 2007 federal lawsuit filed by a Connecticut inmate alleging excessive force during a 2005 incident. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but a federal judge did not rule on the validity of the accusations. Woodworth was a lieutenant at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center at the time of the 2005 incident. He was one of 15 DOC employees named in the lawsuit by inmate William Hamilton, who said guards used excessive force against him after finding contraband in his cell.
Woodworth is named as one of several officers who took part in a “violent struggle” with Hamilton, according to the lawsuit.
3. Woodworth Is From Pawcatuck, Connecticut, & Is a Captain at the Wyatt Detention Facility
Thomas Woodworth is a married father from Pawcatuck, Connecticut, according to online records.
According to Wyatt’s website, the correctional officer captain is one of the higher-ranking positions at the prison. There are three shift captains at Wyatt, who oversee lieutenants, sergeants and officers. It is not clear how long Woodworth has worked at the Wyatt Detention Facility.
4. Several Agencies Are Investigating Woodworth’s Actions While He Is On Leave
Several agencies, including the Rhode Island State Police, the Central Falls Police Department and the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office are investigating Thomas Woodworth’s actions as a potential crime. Prison officials say Woodworth has been suspended and an investigation will be carried out by federal and Wyatt officials as well.
“Warden Daniel Martin is also conducting a top to bottom review of the incident, Wyatt correctional officers’ response and Wyatt’s protocols regarding protest activities outside of the facility,” a statement from a Wyatt spokesman said. “Captain Thomas Woodworth has been placed on administrative leave pending the results of the independent investigation conducted by the Rhode Island State Police, and Wyatt’s internal investigation. Wyatt supports the First Amendment right of citizens to peacefully protest on public property surrounding the facility and the First Amendment right of journalists to report on the facility.”
Rhode Island politician Aaron Regunberg said on Facebook that police declined to intervene, did not detain the driver and did not take witness statements from protesters. Regunberg wrote, “I also want to make very clear that literally dozens of us from tonight’s protest asked, clamored, demanded that the police take witness statements about the attack, and they actively refused to do so.”
Central Falls Police Chief Daniel Barzykowski told the Providence Journal that wasn’t true. “We asked anyone that saw anything to come to the station and file a report [due to the number of people on the scene],” he told the newspaper.
State Police Major Timothy Sanzi told the newspaper they would like witnesses to come forward. He added, “We are looking into any possible crime. We just want to assure the public that we are doing a complete and thorough investigation.”
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha said in a statement, “Once we have a full understanding of the relevant facts, we will determine how to proceed. Peaceful protest is a fundamental right of all Americans; it is unfortunate last night’s situation unfolded as it did. We urge all to exercise restraint as our investigation proceeds.”
The Wyatt Detention Facility recently began taking in detained immigrants. The facility had stopped holding ICE detainees in 2008 after a Chinese man, Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng, died as a result of “cruel, inhumane, malicious and sadistic behavior,” the ACLU said in a wrongful death lawsuit, according to The Providence Journal. Ng died of liver cancer after being ignored by staff at the prison, according to the ACLU.
“What happened with Jason Ng was absolutely horrendous,” Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU told the Providence Journal in May 2019. “I’m sure things have changed over the course of a decade, but it is absolutely essential that there be critical oversight if they’re going to start holding these detainees again. What happened before simply cannot happen again.”
Brown added, “This is all about money,” he said. “They are always rooting for more people to fill their beds, unfortunately.”
ICE spokesman John Mohan told the Journal in a statement, “As of March 10, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Boston started utilizing space at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to house ICE detainees. As with all ICE detention facilities, the Wyatt facility will comply with the agency’s rigorous detention standards.”
5. State, Local & Federal Elected Officials in Rhode Island Reacted to the Incident With Anger & Called for an Investigation
Elected officials in Rhode Island reacted with anger and calls for an investigation after the incident was spread online by organizers of the protest and their supporters.
“I share the outrage Rhode Islanders are feeling about the incident depicted in the video at the Wyatt Detention Center,” Governor Gina Raimondo said in a statement. “Our state and our nation were built on the idea that everyone has a right to express their opinion publicly and peacefully. President Trump’s immigration policies are immoral, and these Rhode Islanders were exercising their constitutional right to protest. I am in communication with Rhode Island State Police Colonel Jim Manni regarding the events of last night, and we are committed to a full investigation.”
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, a Republican, said on social media, “Expecting swift and decisive action by law enforcement. The actions by the truck driver don’t appear to be in self defense, or defense of others, from imminent harm — the only justification for violence.”
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline said on Twitter, “Very disturbing videos taken last night outside the Wyatt Detention Facility. The right of a free people to protest their government is fundamental to our democracy. Wyatt needs to fully cooperate with the State Police and the Attorney General during their investigation.”
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse tweeted, “RI was founded on the principle of tolerance & there is no place here for any assault on peaceful protestors. This incident needs to be thoroughly investigated & those responsible must be held accountable.” Fellow U.S. Senator Jack Reed added in a tweet, “Peaceful protest is an American right. Last night’s video is very disturbing and the state police must swiftly investigate.”
The ACLU of Rhode Island’s executive director Steven Brown said in a statement, “Last night’s incident outside the Wyatt Detention Facility was unconscionable, and nothing less than an attempt to chill the exercise of First Amendment rights by hundreds of peaceful protesters.”
Brown added, “While some of the protesters may have been obstructing the entrance to a parking lot, there are many mechanisms available to police to address such conduct. However, a correctional officer’s deliberate deployment of a pickup truck to push people away from the lot, and the indiscriminate use of pepper spray on the protesters by Wyatt guards were completely unacceptable uses of force. We are pleased that the Attorney General has agreed to conduct an investigation of this disturbing incident, and we look forward to seeing the appropriate individuals held accountable for what happened.”
ICE spokesman John Mohan said in a statement that personnel from the agency were not involved in the response to the protest and added, “misinformation about the ICE mission continues to shroud the agency’s critical law enforcement function and unnecessarily puts communities and ICE personnel at risk.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement fully respects the Constitutional rights of all people to peacefully and lawfully express their opinions; however, the agency will continue to perform its immigration enforcement mission consistent with federal law and agency policy.”