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Opinion: We could have ended family detention in PA in 2016. Why is it allowed to continue?

February 26, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
In November and December of 2020, I organized with colleagues to stop the rushed and illegal detention of families held in the immigrant family prison system, families who between them had a total of 28 children. Two of those families were being held right here in Pennsylvania in the Berks County Detention Center.

They had fled Haiti seeking asylum, fleeing from their government and brutal acts of violence.

In late November I stood outside the ICE office in Philadelphia and read statements written by children as young as 6 years old, held in one of the family prisons in Texas, who were pleading for their freedom and respite from deportation. Everything about this, the prisons filled with families and death flights our country was pushing for them, is wrong. It’s cruel. And it continues.

My name is Prudence Powell, I am an immigrant from Jamaica living in Philadelphia and work at the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizenship Coalition. I am a part of the Shut Down Berks Coalition based in Pennsylvania, a coalition of organizations, grassroots groups, churches, lawyers and activists fighting to end family detention.

This facility has been operating as a family prison since 2014 and this last year we’ve seen families face months of incarceration all while a global pandemic tears through prisons. Specifically, it has been Black and brown families who have disproportionally been incarcerated in these illegal detention centers.

The state of Pennsylvania allows an illegal prison for families, families with babies as young as 2 weeks old, to operate, despite breaking state law.

Governor Tom Wolf, Lt. Governor John Fetterman and Secretary Teresa Miller have repeatedly been asked to utilize the full extent of their power to end family detention in the state. Legal research is clear, they can issue an Emergency Removal Order on the Berks County Detention Center, an action that would ensure the facility can no longer be used by ICE.

This is something they could have done as early as 2016. Yet, they have not only sidestepped the issue, they are actively fighting the coalition in court to not take action to end family detention.

It is not only their moral obligation to keep families out of jail but their legal responsibility, there is no license that exists in Pennsylvania that allows any facility to incarcerate families.

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All the while, more families keep being brought to the prison, despite the pandemic getting worse. From October to December of 2020 the federal government itself filed that six staffers at the Berks facility tested positive for COVID.

No child or family should have to go through what the families are experiencing as we speak. As a mother myself, it is unimaginable the stress and anger these parents are feeling, the inability to care for your child under these circumstances after sacrificing so much for their safety.

We have repeatedly called on Gov. Wolf, Lt. Gov. Fetterman and Sec. Miller to shut down Berks County family prison, so ICE is forced to release these families to their loved ones waiting for them on the outside, but they keep giving us new excuses to negate their responsibility. I don’t know how they can sleep at night knowing so many families are suffering under their “care.”

No more excuses, it’s time to end family detention in Pennsylvania once and for all. It’s time to shut down Berks.


If you would like to get involved in the campaign to Shut Down Berks, follow the coalition on Facebook and Instagram at @shutdownberkscoalition and on twitter @shutdownberks.

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