In 2015, a Berks County Detention Center staff member was charged with seven counts of institutional sexual assault, including that of a 19-year-old Honduran mother at the immigration detention facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania. The employee was sentenced to five months in prison—less time than the victim had been detained at Berks. The surrounding community, including various advocacy organizations, were outraged and became determined to shut down the facility.
After a grueling eight-year campaign to close and empty the detention center, the Shut Down Berks Coalition has finally achieved its goal, with all formerly incarcerated immigrants returned to their communities and the infamous Berks’ doors permanently closed.
“It is the best news I have heard,” said Lorena, a mother who was incarcerated with her son at Berks for two years. “[I am] happy to know that there will never again be families in Berks Detention. No more depressed children locked up. Freedom is the most valuable thing that can be had, thanks to the support from everyone. Families should not arrive to be confined, no matter where they are from.”
Since opening in 2001, the Berks Detention Center has been notorious for holding innocent families seeking asylum, including children as young as 2 weeks old. The facility’s prison contract with ICE finally ended at the end of last month, and all detainees were released ahead of time on Jan. 10 before the center’s closure.
This wasn’t the first time that Berks was emptied; in February 2021, the Biden administration released seven families from the facility under the guise of closing Berks for good, but ultimately fell back on its campaign promise by September 2021 when they reopened and repurposed the center to solely detain immigrant women. In response, the Shut Down Berks Coalition spent a year rallying at the federal level, demanding the immediate release of everyone at the detention center and for Biden to end the ICE contract. Now, these demands have come to fruition, and all of the people incarcerated have been released back to their communities, rather than transferred to another facility.
Organizers say one of their main strategies while fighting to close the center was to uplift the voices and experiences of the people incarcerated. The women detained at Berks reported being sexually assaulted by staff and repeatedly subjected to impromptu bed checks throughout the night. They also received very little food, and what they were served often made them sick.
“When we were able to communicate with [the women detained at Berks], they would be part of making strategy decisions just like every other coalition member who wasn’t incarcerated,” said Adrianna Torres-García, deputy director of The Free Migration Project. “It was really important to us to make sure that whatever we were doing was grounded in the wishes and desires of people who were incarcerated and trying to not speak for them. Because they have a voice—all they needed was a platform.”
Torres-García also credits the coalition’s success to establishing a set of core abolitionist values that they stuck to throughout the process.
“When it looked like things were going roughly, and that there was no way to close it down, we would refer back to those values, and they would ground us,” said Torres-García. “The values of the coalition are abolitionist, so it was always ‘shut it down.’ It was never, ‘make conditions better’ […] And I think that hammering down on that message consistently throughout all these years was really what got us this win.”
Now that the coalition has officially disbanded after Berks’ closure, organizers are in talks with elected officials and community leaders to convert the facility into a substance use recovery center, mental health facility, or community center for local residents. Organizers have also set their sights on closing other detention centers around the state, such as the Moshannon Valley Processing Center near State College, Pennsylvania.
“We have the chance to bring healing to our county after the years of harm this building was home to,” said Berks Stands Up organizer Celine Schrier. “It is vitally important that we repurpose this building and ensure that ICE never finds a home in Berks County again.”