We are writing today in regards to the continued operation of the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC) outside of Reading, PA which is illegally incarcerating immigrant families.
We applaud the action by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) in February 2016 to not renew the state license for BCRC. This decision to remove the licensing from this immigrant family detention center was a vital step toward releasing the many unlawfully detained parents and children currently held at BCRC, and a first step toward ending the practice of jailing immigrant families.
Unfortunately, Berks County is appealing the PA DHS decision, and these families are still unlawfully detained. The majority of families currently at BCRC have been imprisoned for more than a year, contrary to multiple Federal Court orders and stated ICE policy. Every day that these parents and children continue to be imprisoned is a violation of their human rights.
We are calling on you to work with Secretary Ted Dallas at the PA DHS to immediately issue an Emergency Removal Order (ERO), which would ensure that these families are released to the care of their families & communities, and to work with Secretary Dallas and the Berks County Commissioners to keep BCRC empty while Berks County litigates the licensing appeal.
We are confident that the current situation at BCRC satisfies the standard of showing “gross incompetence, negligence, misconduct in operating the facility or agency, or mistreatment or abuse of clients, likely to constitute an immediate and serious danger to the life or health of the clients” required to issue an ERO.
First, according to multiple experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the very act of imprisoning children “puts them at greater risk for physical and mental health problems and unnecessarily exposes [them] to additional psychological trauma.” As stated earlier, the majority of children currently held at BCRC have been in detention for more than a year, including a two-year old child who has now been in prison for more than half of their life.
Second, the list of documented instances of abuse and neglect by the staff and administration at BCRC is long, showing that the lives and health of these families is in constant danger. A short list of human rights abuses in the last two years include:
-- In the summer of 2014, a counselor raped a nineteen-year-old woman in custody at BCRC. This assault occurred in the presence of other imprisoned women and children. Although that staff member was fired, the woman continued to be incarcerated with her three-year-old son for four months after the event, never received proper mental health services, and was denied privileges. The witnesses to this assault also never received proper mental health services.
-- In December 2015 a mother requested a doctor visit for her four-year-old child who was vomiting and had diarrhea. After receiving no response, she submitted multiple complaints and requests, until finally in March, 2016 her child was taken to the doctor and diagnosed with Shigella, a highly contagious, and preventable, disease. After this diagnosis, BCRC did not test the rest of the children in detention, the food service workers, or take any other concrete action to ensure the health and safety of these families.
-- Many of these families are fleeing extreme violence and trauma, and the ongoing imprisonment is causing severe depression and other mental health issues for both parents and children. BCRC has refused nearly all requests for release or mental health assistance to these families, including cases where the person has been on watch for self-harm.
-- The standard response by BCRC staff to mothers who have reported that their children, some as young as one or two years old, had high fevers was to give the child a glass of water.
A longer enumeration of the abuse and neglect of these families has been documented in several reports by Human Rights First.
The most recent illustration of why it is important for you to take action and work to immediately release all families held at BCRC is the recent hunger strike launched by mothers at BCRC. On August 8, 2016 twenty-two mothers at BCRC launched a hunger strike, calling for the immediate release of themselves and their children. This hunger strike was partially in response to a statement made by Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, two days earlier, stating: “What we've been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these (family detention) facilities is 20 days or less.” Each of the families had been held in detention between 60 and 365 days as of the beginning of the hunger strike. After launching their strike, mothers were threatened by ICE officials, including threats that they would be transferred to adult detention centers and that their children would be taken away. Throughout the five weeks that these mothers were on hunger strike and fasted, they suffered constant verbal and emotional abuse from both ICE officials and BCRC staff. Even though these families have been detained for many times longer than any family is allowed to be detained by federal court order, no action has been taken, and most of those families are still imprisoned at BCRC.
Most recently the cases of these families have been brought to the attention of the United Nations through a US Human Rights Tribunal in Pennsylvania where the head of the working group on arbitrary detention was present. This working group will be touring the U.S. in October and the families will be issuing an urgent appeal to the United Nations, making this not just a local issue but also an international one.
We believe that Pennsylvania should take a stand against the inhumane practice of jailing immigrant families. We hope you will take leadership on this issue by working to immediately issue an ERO and to keep BCRC empty during the license appeal litigation.
Sincerely, The Shut Down Berks Coalition and Supporters