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Photo: Twitter- Shut Down Berks
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Shut Down Berks and others protest outside Berks Detention Center on International Women’s Day

The facility, which was shut down as a family detention center in February 2021, now houses immigrant women.

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On Tuesday, March 8, a day recognized annually as International Women’s Day, activists from the Shut Down Berks Coalition rallied outside of Berks County Residential Center, demanding that Berks County Commissioners shut down the prison. 

All in attendance had the opportunity to be in solidarity with the incarcerated women currently housed in the facility through hand-written postcards, as well as take actions to advocate against the Berks facility.

After years of organizing and resistance on behalf of the organizations that make up the coalition, the facility, which was once a detention center for immigrant families, was shut down in February 2021, and all the families were released. 

But in January 2022, the Biden administration and ICE repurposed the site to incarcerate immigrant women, despite major backlash from activists and community members. 

The Biden administration has increasingly turned to alternatives to detention, such as using ankle monitors and mandatory phone check-ins for families that it may have previously detained. 

However, single-adults are still being incarcerated by the tens of thousands. As of January, 20,886 immigrants were being held across all of ICE’s facilities, according to TRAC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with Syracuse University.

Adriana Torres-García, program coordinator with the Free Migration Project and member of Shut Down Berks, told WESA last month that she and her fellow members are very frustrated and disappointed that the federal government had 11 months to close the center while it was empty, but failed to do so. 

We’re just calling on President Biden to let these women go and shut this down,” Torres-García said. 

This is the same facility where a staff member was convicted for repeatedly sexually assaulting a 19-year-old mother in 2014. ICE detention facilities are notorious for such dishonorable behavior.

In a report from 2018, there were 1,224 instances of reported sexual assault in ICE detention. The T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas, which also shifted from detaining families to detaining women, there has been widespread accounts of sexual assault, medicaal neglect, retaliation, and nutritional deprivation.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition is demanding that the Biden administration permanently shut down the facility and release all the women currently incarcerated at Berks. 

“We know that there have been abuses by guards at this prison. We will not get tired of raising our voices for justice and equality for all. We want communities, not cages,” said Francisca Méndez from Make the Road PA. 

Coalition members gathered in front of the prison to demand the permanent closure of the prison as well as its repurposing as a public service building. 

“It is unacceptable to think that detention of women is any better than detention of families. The women ICE is detaining here at Berks are women seeking safety in this country. They are separated from their families,” said Bridget Cambria, an organizer with Aldea-The People's Justice Center. 

Koh Chiba, Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, who serves Montgomery and Berks Counties, was also in attendance and made a statement on behalf of Dean’s office. 

“We will continue to work until Berks shuts down. We were relieved when Berks closed for families, and we hoped the next time we were here would be to open a community center. But instead there are women under lock and key here now,” Chiba said. 

Make the Road PA organizers Juana Mora and Gabrielina Lopez closed out the rally by singing a Chilean song called “Venceremos,” which means “we shall prevail.” 

 

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