End Family Detention in PA

The Berks County Detention Center, known officially as the Berks County Residential Center, is a prison for immigrant families, where children as young as two-weeks-old have been incarcerated. The PA Department of Human Services (“DHS”) is responsible for erroneously licensing the facility to operate, despite their mission to “provide and promote safety and permanency for children and youth at risk of abuse, neglect and delinquency.” Berks is currently in direct violation of the license and is operating illegally according to Pennsylvania regulations. DHS Secretary Ted Dallas needs to immediately release the families currently incarcerated, revoke the license and permanently close the prison.

Not only is the incarceration of families immoral but the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that the detainment of children in the BCDC “puts them at greater risk for physical and mental health problems and unnecessarily exposes [them] to additional psychological trauma.” In addition to the illegal detention of children, in the last year alone Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Berks staff refused medical care for a child who vomited blood for four days. Further the first year BCDC refused nearly all requests for the release of detainees suffering from severe mental illnesses and who have been on watch for self-harm, including children. BCDC staff also failed to provide proper care for several children who suffered from a fungus that appeared on their genitals after being detained and instructed mothers to treat their children’s fevers of less than 100 degrees with a glass of water.

The DHS mission also states that the Department will “strengthen and preserve families while empowering them to make choices that lead to safety, stability and wellbeing.” Yet, within the last year families have been exposed not only to unlawful and unnecessary detention but abuse from staff. Last summer, a nineteen-year-old woman was the victim of institutional rape by a counselor at BCDC. The assault occurred in the presence of other incarcerated women and children. For four months after ICE and the center’s leadership learned of the assault, the young woman continued to be incarcerated with her three-year-old son and denied privileges. ICE’s only response to the sexual assault, other than firing the guard, was implementing a stringent dress code for the detained women. In addition to this incident of sexual assault, many families have reported verbal abuse from staff and neglect in regards to their physical and mental health.

The families’ demands for release found support in a federal court order issued in August, which mandated the release of all children and their parents from detention, absent a demonstrated flight or safety risk based on an individualized assessment. However, the hope raised by this decision was short-lived, as the government has unveiled plans to appeal the federal judge’s decision. In fact, the federal government plans to double the capacity of Berks and has increased detention rates of families crossing the Southern border. Families now face even faster turnover of their asylum applications, making it nearly impossible to obtain the necessary paperwork or find counsel. In addition, they face the injustice of being “cared for” by their prosecutor—an injustice that was recognized and addressed when the custody of unaccompanied children was transferred from the immigration enforcement authorities to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The federal government has chosen, as a matter of policy and political pressure, to incarcerate immigrant families. The federal Immigration and Nationality Act does not require that immigrants entering the United States be detained. Moreover, the vast majority of families have relatives living in the United States with whom they can reside. For the minority who come to this country without family ties, pilot programs by faith-based groups have successfully provided housing and other support in cooperation with federal authorities.

The continued operation of the Berks County Detention Center not only violates state regulations but also operates in violation of federal law. In recent months Federal Judge Gee ruled twice that the incarceration of families is in direct violation of the law and has ordered the immediate release of families currently incarcerated in ICE facilities. As the fight continues to close all Immigrant Detention Centers across the country, we call for the immediate closure of the Berks County Detention Center. PA DHS has publicly recognized that the center is in violation of the license but has yet to take action. This is why we call upon Ted Dallas, Secretary of the PA Department of Human Services, who has the power to revoke the license and release these families, to do so immediately.

If you have any questions about the Berks County Family Detention Center or this campaign you can contact Jasmine Rivera at jasmine@vamosjuntos.org or 480-628-4032.

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    I support that the PA Secretary of the Department of Human Services, Ted Dallas, immediately revoke the license of the Berks County Detention Center. The continued operation of the Berks County Detention Center not only violates state regulations but also operates in violation of federal regulations. No family should be incarcerated, it is for this reason that Ted Dallas must immediately release the families currently incarcerated, revoke the license and permanently close the prison.
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