Berk’s immigrant prison closes as federal government terminates contract

The Berks County immigrant detention center will close early in the New Year, officials confirmed Wednesday, its end is the dream of legions of activists and protesters who have long criticized the facility as barbaric.

The federal government told local leaders on Wednesday that it would end its contract with the county effective Jan. 31. ICE officials in Philadelphia said they were gathering information about the closure and would provide details soon.

“The government may have finally made the right decision to end immigrant detention in Berks County,” said attorney Bridget Cambria, who has long served as executive director of ALDEA – the People’s Justice Center in Reading – on behalf of the immigrants held there.

The Reading Eagle was the first to report the news on Wednesday.

“Today was a day of tears of joy,” said Jasmine Rivera, a leader of the Philadelphia-based Shut Down Berks Coalition, which has long worked to shut down the facility. “We will take that joy and quest for freedom and make sure that happens now for every single woman in the Berks County Detention Center. We’ll make sure every single one of them is free on January 31st and then we’ll celebrate some more.”

The 96-bed Berks Lock is operated by the county under a contract with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is best known for being one of three facilities in the country where immigrant families were held. It relinquished that role when it closed in early 2021, but reopened this year as a detention center for immigrant women.

“This victory feels like a dream,” said Liliana Perez, a CASA member who was held at the center for a month. “I feel happy, content and free. … This detention center has caused a lot of suffering and I am overjoyed to finally see it closed.”

County officials met with management and staff at the so-called Berks County Residential Center on Wednesday to update them on the federal government’s decision. Around 60 people work there.

“We have organized among Republicans and Democrats, through horrific abuses and temporary closures, and today we celebrate a tremendous victory for our communities,” said Flor Gonzalez, Reading resident and Make the Road PA member leader. “This victory belongs to the immigrant families and most recently to the imprisoned immigrant women who shared their stories of humanity and the organizers who never lost hope and never stopped fighting for immigrant freedom and togetherness.”

Amnesty International has condemned Berks and similar organizations as inhumane and expensive, saying they “undermine our country’s long history of providing hope for people seeking safety.”

For years, the facility has been the target of protests, vigils, lawsuits and lobbying aimed at forcing its closure. No one held at Berks faces criminal charges, though the center essentially functions as a prison, locking up people while their immigration cases progress.

Activists are noting that under President Joe Biden, the number of beds available for detention of undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed. The repurposed facility in Berks County was joined by a 1,876-bed private prison, the Moshannon Valley Processing Center in Clearfield County.

Advocates have claimed that anyone being held at Berks could be immediately released to family members or community sponsors and continue their asylum claims from outside detention. Asylum is a legal way to stay in the country and can be granted to people who could be injured or killed if returned to their home countries.