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The coalition won its fight, but still has work to do. Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Shut Down Berks Coalition reflects on its historic victory and what’s next

AL DÍA News spoke with Jasmine Rivera, a leader with the coalition who spoke on what the victory means.

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The Berks County Detention Center — infamously known for its detainment of immigrant women, children, and families — will be shutting down this upcoming new year, officials confirmed on Wednesday, Nov. 30. It’s a huge victory for activists, protesters, and groups who fought hard in the battle against Berks County and the U.S. government. 

Federal government officials told Berks County leaders and officials on Wednesday that it would end its contract with the PA county on Jan. 31, 2023. Philadelphia ICE officials have commented and said they are currently in the process of getting more information about the closure and would subsequently provide details in the coming days or weeks. 

The detention center that for the last part of the year has only housed immigrant women, is a 96-bed facility that is managed by the county through a contract with ICE. Prior to its transition at the beginning of 2022 to housing migrant women, it was only one of three facilities in the country that detained and housed immigrant families. 

The detention center even caught the attention of U.K. based organization Amnesty International, a global non-governmental organization focused on human rights. They have publicly gone after Berks and other similar centers and described them as “inhumane” and “expensive,” adding that they “undermine our country’s long history as a beacon of hope for people seeking safety.”

On top of being extremely condemned by advocacy groups and others, the center has also been subject to protests, and lawsuits, all aimed at looking to shut down the facility. The detention center held immigrants while they waited for their immigration cases to make their way through the courts. 

Under President Joe Biden, the number of available beds for undocumented immigrants has, at least in Pennsylvania, increased. 

In the last 10 years or so, the facility gained a notorious reputation for mistreatment of migrants in its custody. 

Organizations like the Shut Down Berks Coalition have called for its closure over the last six years. One of the Coalition’s leaders, Jasmine Rivera, spoke to AL DÍA  News about the shutdown, the coalition, and the future of its work and the facility. 

Q: You guys have been organizing since 2015, what was your immediate reaction to the news? 

A: There's many of us in the coalition so the reactions were varied — joy, shock, tears of happiness. It was surprising at first but we knew this day would come. We have built a movement over the last eight years of grassroots, and even grasstop support to shut down this immigrant prison. This is a victory won by many, but most importantly, by those who have been detained in Berks. They resisted, they fought for their freedom and for a better life, and now future immigrants will not have to endure what they did. 

Q: In the statement released, the coalition said “We are beyond thrilled to hear this news and look forward to seeing everyone released to their families and communities. We demand releases, not transfers!” Has there been any word or indication of what exactly is to happen to the people in the center?

A: Right now it is looking very likely that these women will be released in the weeks to come. The first releases have begun today, with about four to six getting out today! However, we have to remain vigilant because nothing is guaranteed and these women deserve to be free. We will call on our community to mobilize once again to demand freedom, and we stand firmly against transfers to other immigrant prisons. 

Q: Also in the statement,  “We will also remain vigilant that this site will never again be used to inflict more violence against immigrants or incarcerate more people as it transitions to a new purpose.” What do those vigilant efforts look like specifically?

A: Those efforts are being led by Berks County leaders, who have for years demanded this facility be converted into one that provides health and human services. So that looks like programs run by local governments, state or county, that help the surrounding community. Through this campaign we have built not only grassroots support but grasstops as well, and we have several state elected leaders who are committed to finding funding for programs that serve, not abuse, people. 

Q: Also, when it is said as it transitions to a new purpose, what is that new purpose?

A: We defer to the people of Berks County on what that purpose should be. We hope that county leaders will have a transparent process that allows community members to be a part of that decision making process. What we do know is, that facility was once a senior citizen home. And we have heard over the years of this facility being used as a drug treatment facility or an agriculture research and development center. This facility has worn many hats over the years and we look forward to the good it can bring in the future. 

Q: Following the closure this upcoming January, what does the future of the Shut Down Berks Coalition look like? 

A: For right now, we're just focused on getting the last of the 44 women released from Berks, then celebrating Feb. 1 with the community. 

Shut Down Berks Coalition will hold a Vigil for Release, to show support to the immigrant women in detention at the facility. It will be led by the Center on Immigration, in front of the Berks County Detention Center on Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 10 a.m.

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