Berks County, Pennsylvania — Today, the Shut Down Berks Coalition and Detention Watch Network are celebrating the news that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will cut the contract for the Berks County Detention Center (Berks) in Pennsylvania on January 31, 2023. The announcement signals a major win for people who’ve been detained at the facility and have bravely spoken out against the abuses they’ve experienced and also for organizations in Pennsylvania and around the country that have long fought to shut it down. This is the fourth detention contract that has been cut under the Biden administration.
In response to Berks’ ICE detention contract being cut, national and Pennsylvania-based immigrants’ rights advocates are demanding women be released immediately and the facility be permanently shut down. They have issued the following statements:
Celine Schrier, Local Organizer for Berks Stands Up: “Closing the Detention Center here in Berks County finally puts an end to the years of trauma inflicted against immigrants in our communities. It couldn’t have happened without the direct action and leadership of those held there and in other centers around America. Now we must ensure that anyone held is released to their family and it falls to us in Berks to ensure the center is transformed into a true public service that meets our community needs.”
Liliana Perez, CASA Member: “This victory feels like a dream. I feel happy, content, and free. Closing Berks detention center is the best thing that could have happened. I spent more than 1 month in detention and my sick daughter was never cared for or given the medicine she needed while I was in prison. This detention center created a lot of suffering, and I am overjoyed to see it finally close. The same freedom that I have should be given to other immigrants in Pennsylvania and across the country.”
Flor Gonzales, Make the Road PA Member Leader and Reading resident said: “The detention center for immigrants in my county is finally closing down. Over the years, as a member leader of Make the Road Pennsylvania I have protested outside the detention center, marched in DC and earlier this year was able to speak with Biden’s staff to shut it down. We organized under Republicans and Democrats, through horrifying abuses and temporary closures, and today we are celebrating an enormous win for our communities. This victory belongs to the immigrant families and most recently the immigrant women detained who shared their stories of humanity and to the organizers who never lost hope and never stopped fighting for immigrants to be free and together. Today is a good day for the immigrant community.”
Mike Ishii, Organizer with Tsuru for Solidarity, said: "It is with tears of joy and relief that we celebrate this closing. Let's be clear that it is happening due to years of advocacy by PA immigrant rights advocates. Today's victory is a reflection of what happens when local communities organize, fight, and win the things they need--real economic opportunities for rural, working class communities that do not rely on incarceration, that open futures for people. We also know that Berks has had a terrible history as a family detention site and the Biden administration continues to separate and detain families even though they promised to end these practices. As Japanese Americans, we know the long term impacts of these childhood separations and incarcerations on the families that survive them and the generations that follow. We cannot continue to harm children and families in these ways. Let the closure of Berks begin the ending of this cruel, inhumane practice. Close them all."
Stacy Suh, Program Director at Detention Watch Network, said: “First and foremost, we applaud all the detained leaders who have demanded their freedom. The shut down of Berks is happening because of their bravery and the years of advocacy work led by local groups documenting how inhumane and unjust immigration detention is. While we celebrate this win, it is completely unacceptable that Biden has doubled the number of people in detention and quadrupled the number of people subjected to traumatizing surveillance and monitoring under so-called alternatives to detention. Biden must act urgently to immediately release people from detention, cut detention contracts and shut down facilities permanently.”
David Bennion, Executive Director, Free Migration Project, said: “This victory shows that when we fight together to demand freedom, nothing is impossible. For decades, the U.S. government has sent people seeking safety--including toddlers and infants--to the ICE prison in Berks County. The government’s decision to close the prison is the result of years of organizing led by community members impacted by ICE raids and jails, including parents who were incarcerated at Berks with their children.”
For the majority of its 21 years in operation, Berks was used as a family detention center. Once the Biden Administration ended its practice of detaining families, Berks was converted and expanded into an adult facility for women in 2021. Throughout this time, the Shut Down Berks Coalition has documented Berks’ history of abuse which includes verbal and sexual abuse and extreme medical neglect, including guards ignoring instances of fever, vomiting, skin rashes, and respiratory illnesses. In 2014, a guard at Berks pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 19-year-old mother and asylum applicant. The facility was also included in Detention Watch Network’s 2021 Report “First Ten to Communities Not Cages.”
People have been organizing to shut down Berks since 2015 when groups successfully prevented the facility from nearly doubling its capacity. Here is a snapshot of people coming together to call for its permanent closure:
- In March of 2021, 145 organizations sent a letter to the Biden administration against the repurposing of the Berks County Detention Center and demanding the facility be shut down for good.
- In August 2022, Shut Down Berks members rallied in DC to demand Biden end the ICE contract.
- In 2016, mothers launched hunger strikes that garnered national attention and inspired parents detained in other family detention facilities.
- The children detained at Berks have also engaged in various efforts, including a powerful 2016 school strike, to fight for liberation.
- In 2015, mothers participated in a work stoppage to demand freedom for their children and closure of Berks.
For a complete timeline on Berks, visit the Shut Down Berks Coalition website.
Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the United States’ immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level to end immigration detention. Visit detentionwatchnetwork.org. Follow on Twitter @DetentionWatch.