Members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, immigrant families, and residents of Berks County, Pennsylvania, thought they had scored a victory on Feb. 26, 2021, when President Joe Biden’s administration emptied Berks County Detention Center, an immigrant detention center that has held families since 2001, including children as young as 2 weeks old. But, by September 2021, the Biden administration had fallen back on its campaign promise to close the infamous center with a history of abusing women, and the Berks County Commissioners reached an agreement to reopen, repurpose, and increase the bed space to detain immigrant women. Now, the Shut Down Berks Coalition and Berks County residents are demanding that the Biden administration permanently shut down the facility and release all women currently incarcerated.
“Conditions are worse, but we’ve always known that they’re bad,” said Adrianna Torres-García, program coordinator for the Free Migration Project. “It’s a prison, so we don’t expect conditions to be good. That’s why we’re calling for it to be permanently shut down and for no one to be incarcerated there. No matter what the conditions are, it’s still a prison.”
Since January 2022, Berks has incarcerated as many as 65 women at a time. In 2014 a staff member was convicted of raping a 19-year-old mother. Advocates and community members are concerned the abuse will continue now that the facility only houses women. In a 2018 report, there were 1,224 instances of reported sexual assault in ICE detention. According to Torres-García, the women at Berks report that they get less time to go outdoors and are repeatedly subjected to impromptu bed checks throughout the night. They’ve also reported receiving very little food, and have said what they are served makes them sick.
Berks is taxpayer funded, and Berks residents have argued that their tax dollars should instead be invested in the health and well-being of their community, including better funded schools, violence prevention services, addiction treatment services, and greater access to health care—not prisons.
“All they’re doing is waiting for their immigration cases to go forward; they can do that from outside of a prison,” Torres-Garcia said. “As long as it’s open, even if it’s like the best conditions in the world, it’s still going to be a prison where people are incarcerated unfairly, and they don’t need to be there.”
Torres-Garcia said that releasing incarcerated people back to the community is always an option. When Berks was emptied, some of the people were released back to their community or to people who agreed to sponsor them, while others were deported. In other situations where centers have been closed, people have simply been transferred to other facilities—a decision that advocates say is ICE’s way to continue perpetuating harm. Now, Berks has been repopulated.
But contracts with ICE have been severed before. In March 2022, the Department of Homeland Security declined to extend its ICE detention contract with Glades County, Alabama. After sustained pressure over the past year and a half in its fight to close Glades County Detention Center, the Shut Down Glades Coalition have been able to achieve zero people in ICE custody at Glades, with ICE announcing that they have “paused” the use of the facility and acknowledging of severely inadequate and dangerous medical care as a factor in its decision to end the use of the facility.
“I think it’s important to shut down the detention centers around the country because they’ve proven time and again, there’s no humane way to detain people,” said Sofia Casini, the director of visitation advocacy strategies at Freedom for Immigrants. “Every detention center is rife with examples of abuse, human rights violations, and just denial of people’s right to freedom and liberty. ICE thrives in secrecy, and this is the way it has run its detention machine all around the country. So what we’ve seen time and again—this is through our national hotline, where we receive abuse reports all around the country, and then from a network of community groups around the country—is that there is no way to humanely detain people in immigrant detention.”
While the contract with ICE has been severed, the Glades County detention facility is still being used to detain people in the custody of the U.S. Marshals despite its extensive record of human rights abuses, including racist violence, sexual abuse, the use of toxic chemical sprays, and fatal medical neglect, among other harms. ICE declined to fully terminate its Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA) with Glades County, enabling future abuse.
“While we celebrate the fact that ICE has heard our demands and paused its operations at Glades, our work is not over,” Casini said. “Regardless of whether ICE or another agency holds the keys, the Glades jail will perpetuate this country’s shameful, racist, and dehumanizing systems of mass incarceration for as long as it remains standing. We all deserve to live in freedom and dignity, which is why we will continue to fight to close down all detention centers and seek freedom for everyone caged.”
Eric Martinez, who was formerly incarcerated at Glades and is now organizing with Immigrant Action Alliance, said there is no difference between the treatment of people who are incarcerated in the county jail portion from the people in immigration detention.
“It was an amazing feeling to raise up the voices of those in detention and to show the injustices and discrimination that go on in detention centers,” said Martinez. “Glades employees and ICE employees have done so much covering up, but what is done in the dark should come out to light. It was a great pleasure to be part of that light.”
Martinez said he faced repeated pepper spraying, horrible food, expensive phone calls, and doors slammed behind his back.
“For people that have never been incarcerated or are just looking to be in a safe country, that’s very traumatizing for them,” Martinez said. “So I think those detention centers should be demolished, and I’m glad that Glades was shut down.”