Families Languish in Pennsylvania Detention Center for over a Year

Yesterday I toured the Berks County Residential Center, an immigration detention facility for families with children under 18. The facility, operated by Berks County under a contract with the federal government, holds 89 parents and children. The government plans to increase its capacity to 200.

Unlike the 2,400-bed mega-facility I recently visited in Dilley, Texas, set on a barren camp with modular trailers, the Berks facility is located on nine wooded acres. The building itself, which used to be a nursing home, has some appealing characteristics—though it hasn’t shed its institutional feel. Many rooms overlook green meadows and trees.

But despite the more scenic atmosphere, Berks is still a detention center. Families there are still deprived of their liberty.

“Counts” happen three times each day. At night, when the residential floors are locked, staff perform observational checks every 15 minutes, shining a flashlight on each person. The mothers I spoke with said they and their children couldn’t sleep as a result of these intrusions. One mother said that her daughter now talks in her sleep, saying, “The staff is coming. They are going to yell at me!”

Many families at Berks spend the entire duration of their immigration proceedings in detention, though at least three families who passed the credible fear interview were recently released on parole. The three mothers I met with had been detained for 13 to 14 months with their children.

Any length of detention is harmful to children and families, according to medical and mental health literature. But prolonged detention is even worse. It can lead to developmental regressions in children, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation.

Our group asked how prolonged detention has affected the mental health of the families at Berks. The facility’s management said they are “generally stable.” This contradicts the research, which shows that the majority of asylum-seekers experience clinical psychological symptoms in detention and that there is a direct correlation between symptoms and the length of detention.

The facility had planned a “field day” party for the children at the time of our tour, complete with soccer, snow cones, and a street fair-style bouncing gym. Mothers said this was done purposefully to impress visitors.

There was also a protest calling for an end to family detention happening right outside the facility. Some of the children and parents made their own t-shirts with slogans. Mothers wrote, “I need my liberty.” One child, who looked about ten years old, wrote in broken English: “We get out of here.” Other children painted tears on their faces.

The federal government and the county have made some efforts to improve the day-to-day conditions for families held at Berks. But there is no real fix for family detention. Detaining asylum-seeking families wastes government resources, damages the mental health of children and families, and contravenes U.S. obligations under international law to protect refugees, as detailed in our report.

Despite recent “actions” by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement promising custody reviews and an end to the policy of detaining families as a deterrent to others, the government is still sending families to detention centers and setting bonds that are prohibitively high. The Obama Administration should put an end to the unjust and misguided policy of detaining children and families.

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Published on June 23, 2015

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