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Photo: Shut Down Berks Coalition Twitter
The Shut Down Berks Coalition continued its fight against the Berks County Detention Center in Philadelphia last week. Photo: Twitter- Shut Down Berks Coalition Twitter

Shut Down Berks rallies outside Philly ICE office against repurpose of Berks County Detention Center

Berks County Commissioners voted in favor of repurposing the center after what activists are calling an “illegal” deliberation process.

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In late February 2021, all the families detained at the Berks County Residential Center were released to their loved ones or sponsors, a victory that was a direct result of years of activism at the hands of Shut Down Berks Coalition.

But the victory of ending migrant detention in Berks County, PA was short-lived. As soon as families were released, Berks County Commissioners, specifically Commissioners Christian Leinbach and Michael Rivera, began deliberating in secret on plans to convert the facility into an all-women’s immigrant prison.

Activists allege these secret deliberations violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, which requires the decisions of public agencies be made public and subject to public scrutiny. It requires that meetings have prior notice, and the public must be able to attend and participate in the discussion before an agency takes any official action. 

After months of refusing to publicize the details of these negotiations to county residents, a majority of whom do not wish to see any more immigrant detention in their neighborhoods, the commissioners took a vote concerning future use of the facility. 

Despite hearing opposition from multiple community members before the final vote, the commissioners still voted “yes” to continuing immigrant detention in the county.

In response, Rep. Chriss Rabb, who was present at the Zoom press conference at the time of the vote, said that the fight is not over, and that these commissioners are “not safe in the next elections.” 

On Wednesday, Sept. 8, members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition gathered outside the Philadelphia ICE office, shutting down 8th street, to oppose the expansion and repurposing of the Berks family prison into a prison for immigrant women. 

Francisca, a Berks County resident and member of Make the Road Pennsylvania, spoke at the rally, urging the Biden administration to terminate the contract with ICE in Berks County.

“We hear on the news testimonies of women being sterilized without their consent. As an undocumented, Mexican [woman], I feel totally discriminated against because they are treating us like cattle. They say it is to ‘give them a service’, that is a service we do not need, it is reprehensible hypocrisy. We gave Biden the vote to support our communities and he’s not doing it,” she said. 

ICE has used the Berks Detention Center since 2001 to incarcerate immigrant families, and both the Coalition and Berks County residents have been witness to the damage caused by the prison in their own backyard. 

In a 2018 report released by The Intercept, there were 1,224 instances of reported sexual assault in ICE detention. A guard from Berks County prison was convicted in 2014 for sexual assault of a 19-year-old Honduran migrant mother. 

This is also a major problem at immigrant prisons for women, such as the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, which was once a family detention center. There has been documented cases of sexual abuse, medical neglect and nutritional deprivation. 

Community members demand that the Biden administration abandon its plan to expand and repurpose the Berks center to incarcerate women, and instead end the ICE contract so the facility can be used for real health and human services. 

"The only way to ensure the end of this unjust and immoral cycle is with the permanent closure of the Berks immigrant prison. President Biden and his administration need to end this ICE contract now, residents of Berks County deserve actual human services they can access," the Shut Down Berks Coalition wrote in a press release. 

Lorena, a mother who was previously detained at the center for almost two years, spoke at the rally, emphasizing that those in power want to make the community think it is not a prison, but that there is no freedom there. 

“My message for those in power, especially the president, is to please stop the detention, especially at Berks because as everyone knows, it is a jail. You do not have the freedom you want, you are always guarded, so it is a prison,” she said. 

“We want our people to be free! It’s inhumane how they treat us. No paper should differentiate us, we’re all humans,” said Erendira, a member of Make the Road PA. 

The next step for the Shut Down Berks Coalition will be an in-person protest outside the facility itself in Leesport, PA on Saturday, Sept. 25. 

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