Opinion | The Berks County Detention Center must be shut down


Via MCT Direct

The Berks County Detention Center, located in Leesport, Pennsylvania, held 23 children in 2019 and is leased by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

By India Krug, Staff Columnist

Pennsylvanians are living with a humanitarian crisis in their own backyard. Critics have labeled the Berks County Detention Center, located in Leesport, a “baby jail.” None of the immigrant families detained there are facing criminal charges, but all are unable to leave during their hearing process, which can take years. The center held 23 children in 2019, enough to fill a daycare. Despite the obvious trauma inflicted on families, the center remains open. It must be shut down.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services regulates the 96-bed secure facility, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement leases it. It is one of only three detention centers in the country to house families.

The facility opened in 2001, but has seen a large increase in use since then. Pennsylvania taxpayers shell out an estimated annual $12 million to keep these families detained. The federal government reimburses Berks County for operating the facility — an agreement that adds $1.3 million in revenue to the county’s budget every year and employs 59 people. This gives the county an incentive to keep the facility open.

The facility gained national attention in 2019, following the detainment of a British family vacationing in Canada who claimed they accidentally drove into the United States. They asked to turn around, but agents refused and instead the family was held at the Berks County Detention Center for two weeks. The family, who had a 3-month-old child, was given a “filthy” baby bathtub and sheets with a “disgusting” smell. When their son woke up with “blotchy” skin and a “swollen” eye, the parents were given the option to separate from their child, which they refused. After delays in being able to contact their embassy, they were able to return home.

Many descriptions of the living conditions in the detention center are similar, but unlike the British family, most detainees are held indefinitely after being stopped at the border. Some families were detained for more than two years.

The office of now former state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale published a report in December 2019 that highlighted the facility’s inability to provide a safe living environment, sufficient medical care and reasonable privacy to its occupants.

The report also addressed a 2014 lawsuit filed after a mother seeking asylum from Honduras was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a 40-year-old Berks employee. In her suit, she claimed that other employees were aware of the abuse and chose not to intervene.

Besides the unacceptable standard of living, detainees are exposed to verbal abuse and workers’ rights violations. Families are treated like convicted inmates, which includes a voluntary work program that assigns adults to maintain the cleanliness of the facility while being paid $1 a day.

Undocumented immigrants who come to America already face significant barriers in the court system and are forced to live in unfit facilities while undergoing the documentation process. Most families rely on pro bono efforts such as nonprofit attorneys or volunteers, and oftentimes have to represent themselves. Additionally, Berks rarely provides translators, despite there being times when no one detained speaks English.

Detention centers continue to operate due to doubts that released families will fail to attend their court hearings. But a study conducted by the American Immigration Council showed that released family members have a very high compliance rate — 96% of families seeking asylum attended all of their hearings.

Berks County Detention Center is not only responsible for human rights violations — its continued operation breaks laws. The Flores Agreement establishes a national policy for detaining children, and states that minors cannot be detained for more than 20 days, a standard the facility has failed to comply with.

The state government revoked the facility’s license to house children in January 2016, and Berks County responded with a lawsuit. This has led to the issue being tied up in the courts, which allows the center to detain children to this day.

Conditions have worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The inability to practice social distancing within the center and lack of health care have caused panic among detained families. After a federal judge ordered for detained children to be released last summer, families were given the choice to either sign custody of their children over to a sponsor or have their children remain in the center with them indefinitely. Additionally, there have been multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases among Berks employees and detainees.

Many activist organizations such as the Shut Down Berks Coalition, Pittsburgh’s own Casa San Jose, Aldea and GirlGov have been working for years to inform the public, provide legal assistance and advocate for action that will release families.

The state government has chosen not to issue an Emergency Removal Order or Cease and Desist Order to shut the center down. The governor and Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt have been discussing potential ways to close the facility since 2019, but have made little to no progress.

Detention and deportations are not only sustained by institutions like ICE, but also by stakeholders in communities like Berks County, which makes the fight all the more difficult. The truth is that the work to free families is arduous, and family detention continues to be a national crisis.

Immigration issues are often among the first to be put on the back burner. Gov. Tom Wolf made this evident when he restricted large public gatherings this summer, but failed to protect detained families who don’t have the option to social distance. It is clearly evident now, on a national level, because the Biden administration has done very little to halt deportations.

Self-sufficient, skilled and intelligent adults are living under conditions that strip them and their children of their humanity. Young people are spending their formative years in confinement. Pennsylvanians have a choice — we can continue to overlook this crisis or join the fight to end it.

If you chose the latter, you can start by donating to organizations such as Free Migration Project, calling your state representatives, signing petitions like Shut Down Berks, learning more through activist campaigns or documentaries and bringing attention to this issue with your peers.

India writes primarily about politics and culture for The Pitt News. Write to her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @indialarson_.