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Activists want Berks County Detention Center shut down for good. Photo: Twitter - Make the Road PA 

The fight to shut down Berks County Detention Center for good scores a major court win

A Berks County judge ruled on June 7 that the case could move forward against Berks County Commissioners for cracking a deal with ICE without public input.

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On Thursday, Feb. 25, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey announced that the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC) had shut down and all the families had been released.

However, it was reported shortly after this small victory that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Berks County had plans to convert the space into a prison for adult immigrant women.

In response, on Monday, March 8, over 100 organizations, including the Shut Down Berks Coalition and Detention Watch Network, penned a letter to the Biden administration, urging them to terminate all ICE and DHS contracts within the county, and shut down the Berks County center for good.

“Our communities do not need immigrant prisons; we need health and human services and freedom,” they wrote.

On Friday, March 26, Make the Road PA and seven individual community members sued the Berks County Commissioners for violating the Sunshine Act by engaging in secret deliberations concerning an ICE proposal for future use of the Berks family prison. 

The plaintiffs, Julia Minotto; Tonya Wenger; Celine Elizabeth Schrier; Jesse D. Royer; Dean Kendall; Eric Gjertsen; and Alex Crawford were represented by Sheller Center for Social Justice, Syrena Law, Free Migration Project, Aldea – the People’s Justice Center, and Al Otro Lado.

Secret deliberations

“The Commissioners provided no information about the letter or proposal, prevented the public from having a reasonable opportunity to comment, and engaged in private deliberations. The Sunshine Act condemns precisely this kind of ‘secrecy’ because it ‘undermines the faith of the public in government,'" the lawsuit reads.

In the suit’s factual background section, the attorneys explained that various national groups have been calling out the deplorable detention conditions of Berks County Residential Center (BCRC), and the long-term impact it has on children.

They also emphasized that statewide groups, including Shut Down Berks Coalition, have engaged in numerous protests and campaigns calling for BCRC to close and no longer detain any immigrants.

It was also pointed out that since the date that all the families detained in BCRC were released, several media professionals have attempted to obtain information about the ICE proposal, but their requests were denied.

On Monday, June 7, a Berks County judge ruled that the Berks residents who sued the County Commissioners for voting to support ICE’s plan for the BCRC without public permission can move forward with their claim.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition along with Berks community members gathered at the Berks County Courthouse to show support and oppose the expansion and repurposing of the BCRC. The demonstration was live streamed on Facebook.

“Our people want peace, justice and dignity,” said Juana Mora in Spanish, an organizer from Make the Road PA.

Both organizers and concerned community members grabbed the mic to speak out against the injustices of immigrant detention.

“I am fiercely against the detention of immigrant women, men, gender non-conforming people and children. The expansion of the Berks detention center to imprison double the amount of immigrants who are women and gender non-conforming will directly affect our own communities and the surrounding area,” said one community member.

Public health crisis

Since 2001, ICE has utilized the BCRC to imprison immigrant families to the detriment of their physical, mental and emotional health. 

The release of the detainees in February was a direct result of years of organizing for its closure on the grounds of its inhumane practices and illegal detainment of immigrant families. 

“The County Commissioners excluded County residents from any discussions about a matter of importance to the community—the imprisonment of asylum-seekers at a County facility.” said Jennifer Lee, from the Sheller Center at Temple Law School, and counsel for the community members. 

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires that all public agency decisions be made open to the public for comment. Despite this law, Berks County Commissioners Christian Leinbach and Michael Rivera privately voted to support ICE’s conversion and expansion plan. 

“This prison will only impoverish our community and will take away our peace. As a woman, I cannot allow immigrant women who come escaping from violence and poverty and who come here to improve their quality of life, to be incarcerated in my backyard,” said Mora. 

Rather than continue the destructive legacy of detaining immigrants, both the advocacy groups and Berks residents would like to see the space transformed into social programming that would stem from transparency and direct collaboration with the community.

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