Local activists seek to help deported detainees of Berks detention center

“I want other people in the state to know that this is a local issue that’s happening here,” D’Angelo said. “I think that incarceration to any people does damage that you can’t reverse. The least we can do is support their families.”

Supporters of immigrants’ rights are invited to the Shut Down Berks Coalition Button Making Party and Fundraiser to be held at South Philly Barbacoa, 1140 S. 9th St., on Monday, March 25, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Money raised from the event will go toward a woman who was an undocumented immigrant and former detainee at Berks County Residential Center – informally called the Berks County Detention Center by opponents of the center – who was deported back to her home country of El Salvador. The money will be used to help put her son through school, and at the woman’s request, neither her or her child’s name is being released.

“This event is more of an art night,” said Shut Down Berks Coalition volunteer Emily Rose DeMarco. “We’re making buttons so that people can wear the buttons and hopefully get people more interested in the topic.”

DeMarco and fellow volunteer Jeanne D’Angelo, the latter of whom is offering her support as a local artist, are both hoping the buttons will work as a conversation starter to get people to ask about the detention center.

“I want other people in the state to know that this is a local issue that’s happening here,” D’Angelo said. “I think that incarceration to any people does damage that you can’t reverse. The least we can do is support their families.”

D’Angelo said that the coalition tries to keep in contact with many of the former detainees at Berks whether they’re “released to America or deported back.”

According to DeMarco, it costs about $150 a month to send the child to school, and the coalition is working on a way to send the money directly to the school rather than the child’s mother.

“In American dollars, it works out to $150 a month,” she said. “It’s not a huge amount, but it’s something she doesn’t have.”

Evidence shows facilities like BCRC “cause long-term harm on families’ physical and mental health — especially when we’re talking about children,” Shut Down Berks Campaign coordinator Jasmine Rivera told SPR in a story published last year that details the alleged injustices of BCRC.

“Even if these centers were just doing that,” Rivera said, referring to the extended periods of time children and families are held at the center, “the reality is there are documented abuses going on at the center.”

A memo from Temple University’s Sheller Center for Social Justice warns that “the conditions at Berks similarly constitute an immediate and serious danger to the detained children and their families.” It highlights a few specific alleged incidents that have occured since it opened in 2014, which include allowing chronic health problems to go untreated in the facility. Examples include the following:

  • A 6-year-old with a severe dental condition that has been ignored since September 2015 despite the child being sent to the emergency room from resulting complications.
  • Two children reporting feeling distressed by an incident in which a child collapsed and appeared to stop breathing, yet received no help from nearby staff.
  • A 3-year-old child who vomited blood was refused medical care by Berks staff for four days before she was taken to a hospital.

The most egregious incident that happened at the center was the rape of a 19-year-old woman by one of the facility’s guards. The guard, 41-year-old Daniel Sharkey, was convicted of institutional sexual assault in April 2016.

“If that’s not grounds enough for shutting down the center, what is?” Rivera asked. “Do we have to wait for someone to die?”

Inhumane treatment aside, the Sheller Center memo says the BCRC’s license to operate is “currently invalid” because it improperly houses children and adults together.

“Under Pennsylvania law,” the memo says, “children under the age of 9 and those who have not been committed to a facility by state court order are not permitted to be detained in a secure facility. Berks is violating the requirements of Flores [v. Lynch, a 2016 court decision] because it continues to detain children in a facility that cannot be licensed by Pennsylvania.” As a result, the memo says, not only would issuing an Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) against BCRC not violate any federal laws, it would actually “bring the federal government into compliance with state and federal law.”

BCRC is one of only three facilities like it in the country. The other two are in Texas. It’s also the only one that is publicly owned because Immigrations and Customs Enforcement leases the facility from Berks County. The two in Texas are privately owned.