In 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PDHS) issued a statement saying it “believes that the current use of the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC) as a family residential center is inconsistent with its current license as a child residential facility.”
The statement was hailed as a message to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has been using BCRC and two privately-operated detention facilities in Texas to house undocumented immigrant families as they await disposition of their status by federal officials. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.40]
The Coalition to Shut Down Berks County Family Detention (the Coalition), a grassroots effort supported by numerous organizations, had been pushing for the revocation of BCRC’s child care license and publicizing abuses that have occurred at the detention facility.
One incident that took place in the summer of 2014, stated a Coalition release, involved an “institutional sexual assault ... of a 19 year old in front of other detainees.” According to the Coalition, other abuses have included “the rampant medical neglect of children which led to a child vomiting blood for four days before receiving proper medical attention.”
Labor abuses involved paying women detainees $1 a day to clean the facility. In June 2014, detainees launched a work strike. The Coalition held rallies demanding that BCRC be shut down and the families released. In response to the statement by PDHS, the Coalition urged action before the facility’s license expired in February 2016.
“This affirms the demands we have made to shut down Berks Family Detention Center and shows [PDHS] should have never licensed the facility to begin with. It also shows that ... Berks is not the model institution ICE has claimed it to be,” said Erika Almirum, executive director of Juntus, a Coalition member organization. “How can it be with all the human rights abuses occurring inside? What it doesn’t show is that ICE has any intention of changing their behavior towards our families. [PDHS Secretary] Ted Dallas does not need to wait until February to release our families or to shut down Berks. We say not one more day in detention for our families.”
In 2015, California U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee ruled that the federal government’s practices regarding the detention of minors violated the terms of a 1997 settlement agreement (the Flores settlement) that set guidelines for the detention, treatment and release of minors.
One of the more salient points of Gee’s ruling was a provision stating that agencies had to end the practice of incarcerating children for more than a few days (with an upward limit of 20 days). In July 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling that found minors should not be housed in unlicensed detention centers. See: Flores v. Lynch, 828 F.3d 898 (9th Cir. 2016).
Nevertheless, despite the expiration and revocation of BCRC’s license for use as a child residential center (an action the Berks County Commission, which owns BCRC, is appealing as having been politically motivated), use of the facility for the detention of immigrant families – including children – has continued.
In response to the alleged severe impact that long-term incarceration has had on their children, 22 mothers detained at BCRC launched a hunger strike in early August 2016. Many had been detained at the facility for more than a year before beginning the strike. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.26]. The mothers also sent an open letter to then-U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, detailing the hardships that they and their children had experienced.
The hunger strikers’ letter to Johnson was joined by another letter, sent later in August 2016 to the DHS Secretary by U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. Casey expressed criticism of the practice of family detention and urged a review of incidents of abuse and neglect reported at BCRC.
Challenges to the controversial practice of housing immigrant women and children at BCRC have continued. In December 2016, around a dozen activists were arrested outside the Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; they were demanding that Governor Tom Wolf immediately close the detention facility.
“The governor would like to see the center closed, which is why he has urged the federal government to close it,” said Wolf’s press secretary, Jeffrey Sheridan. “The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services moved to revoked the license, and we are currently going through the appeals process.”
Sources: www.humanrightsfirst.org, www.readingeagle.com, www.philadelphia.cbslocal.com, www.newsworks.org
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