color photograph of an outdoor protest, mid-close-up of a protester wearing all black while holding up a white paper sign that says "free our future" with three hand prints underneath. two are black and the middle is red
SEATTLE, WA - JULY 12: Protesters march down the street on July 12, 2020, in Seattle. Protesters called for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the closure of detention centers. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Berks County, Pennsylvania, residents and the Shut Down Berks Coalition scored a partial victory at the end of November last year when the Biden administration agreed to permanently shut down the county’s detention center by Jan. 31, 2023. The facility, which has held families and children since 2001 and was notorious for its abuse, sexual assault, and inhumane conditions, currently holds around 40 women, though ICE has stated that any detainee whose case is not determined by the January deadline will be transferred to a different prison—not released. In response, advocates with the Shut Down Berks Coalition are calling on the White House and ICE to use their discretion and release every woman in the center by the end of the month.

“The Shut Down Berks Coalition celebrates the announced shutdown as a major victory, but remains steadfast in once again demanding the immediate release of women from this prison,” organizers wrote in a statement. “The fight to close the Berks Detention Center is not finished until every woman is free.”

Coalition members, immigrant families, and residents of Berks County thought they had scored a victory two years ago on Feb. 26, 2021, when the Biden administration began emptying the Berks County Detention Center, though by September 2021 the administration fell back on its campaign promise to close the infamous facility. Instead, the administration reached an agreement with Berks County Commissioners to reopen, repurpose, and increase the bed space to detain immigrant women. 

“Closing the detention center here in Berks County finally puts an end to the years of trauma inflicted against immigrants in our communities,” said Celine Schrier, local organizer for Berks Stands Up. “It couldn’t have happened without the direct action and leadership of those held there and in other centers around America. Now we must ensure that anyone held is released to their family, and it falls to us in Berks to ensure the center is transformed into a true public service that meets our community needs.”

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. According to Adrianna Torres-García, program coordinator for the Free Migration Project, the women at Berks also reported getting less time to go outdoors and were repeatedly subjected to impromptu bed checks throughout the night. They also reported receiving very little food, while what they were served made them sick. For many, the detention center’s closing marks the end of the facility’s reign of abuse.

“This victory feels like a dream,” said CASA member Liliana Perez. “I feel happy, content, and free. Closing Berks Detention Center is the best thing that could have happened. I spent more than one month in detention, and my sick daughter was never cared for or given the medicine she needed while I was in prison. This detention center created a lot of suffering, and I am overjoyed to see it finally close. The same freedom that I have [now] should be given to other immigrants in Pennsylvania and across the country.” 

On Dec. 21, members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition gathered outside the Philadelphia ICE Field Office to demand the release of any remaining incarcerated women in the facility. While organizers see the facility’s closure as a victory for immigrant communities in Berks and beyond, they are still fighting to ensure it will not be used as a site to inflict more violence against immigrants or incarcerate more people.

“We celebrate this news with our community leaders as validation of the power of organizing and persistence,” said Andy Kang, executive director of Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. “We look forward to building on this momentum to reach our next goal of ending all immigrant detention in Pennsylvania.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...