A controversial Pa. prison for migrants is closing. Three things to know | Friday Morning Coffee

The Berks County Residential Center will close next month after years of protests. What happens next?

By: - December 2, 2022 6:34 am

A sign for the Berks County Residential Center (Capital-Star photo).

Putting a cap on years of protests, a controversial prison for asylum seekers in Berks County will shut its doors next month, according to published reports.

Officials in Berks County announced Wednesday that the federal government, which operates the Berks County Residential Center in Bern Township, will terminate its contract on Jan. 31, the Reading Eagle reported.

“The County of Berks would like to thank the BCRC staff, employees and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for their service and commitment to this program,” county spokesperson Stephanie Weaver said in a statement provided to the newspaper. “County officials are also committed to do everything possible to support these employees during this transition.”

The announcement has cheered advocates, who have long decried what they have described as the inhumane conditions at the detention center, which opened 2001, as one of three where families seeking asylum were held. Earlier this year, it was converted into a women-only facility, according to the Reading Eagle.

Jasmine Rivera, an activist and advocate with the Shutdown Berks Coalition, which had been the most vocal public face of the protest movement, spoke to the Capital-Star on Thursday about the announcement — and what happens next.

It’s a community victory: “This is eight years of non-stop consistent organizing and building a grassroots movement – people up and down Pennsylvania did not want this prison,” Rivera told the Capital-Star. “And this is a community victory. It’s a special victory to those who were incarcerated — the mothers who did the work strikes and hunger strikes; the fathers, mothers, women, who have made their voices heard and demanded that this not happen to anyone else. And there’s a special thank you to those immigrant leaders who had to deal with the abuse.”

200 hundred people gathered in Berks County Friday, July 12, 2019 to protest a immigration detention center outside Reading. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

What happens to the women are now being held?  “Between now and Jan. 31 when this prison is being shut down, we will be hyper-vigilant to make sure the 44 women who are in there now are released and not transferred to another facility, as was the case in York when the York County center shut down,” Rivera said.

“The good news is that we are going to be seeing women released, given where they are at with their proceedings,” Rivera continued. “But … there’s always a but – it’s still [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. We cannot rest on our laurels, we cannot assume. We need to ensure that every woman in that prison is released to their loved ones. There was no reason for them to be incarcerated to begin with. And there’s no reason for them to be transferred.”

What happens to that empty building? “There is no reason for this facility to sit there empty. If there’s anything we have said as a coalition, it’s that it can instead be converted for real human services to the surrounding community,” Rivera said.

“Berks Countians deserve services, and that will be the most beneficial [thing] for all involved,” she continued. “We don’t want it to sit there empty and drained. And we don’t want to see it picked up and again and be used for some other type of harmful detention for immigrants and others.”

(Editor’s Note: Rivera pointed to the example of the Moshannon Valley Processing Center in Philipsburg, Pa., which was a federal prison until it was shuttered in March 2021. It was reopened under contract with GEO Group, a private vendor, as an ICE facility in November 2021.)

“We’ve seen this happen before, So it’s imperative this facility gets converted to be used for good and for service, and to be used to help people’s health and safety,” Rivera said. “That’s what’s best for Berks County, it’s what they demanded for years. It’s what best for Pennsylvania.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.