Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and Human Rights First welcome reports that the Biden administration will end a contract with the Berks Detention Center on January 31, 2023, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility with a long-documented history of abuse and medical neglect. The decision comes after years of relentless advocacy and community organizing efforts supporting the families and women in the facility who bravely disclosed the abuses they endured.
PHR and Human Rights First today published a fact sheet about the Berks Detention Center, informed by a recent human rights monitoring visit to the facility in Fall 2022. The 27 women PHR and Human Rights First interviewed at Berks reported inhumane conditions in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) border custody, medical neglect, cruel and abusive treatment by DHS officers, and devastating impacts of continued family separation.
“The harrowing accounts we heard from women incarcerated at Berks highlight the abuse and depravity inherent in the United States immigration detention system,” said Brittney Bringuez, PHR Asylum Program Coordinator, who participated in the human rights monitoring visit to Berks. “The Biden administration must permanently close Berks Detention Center, release all individuals currently detained at Berks and elsewhere so they may safely pursue their asylum cases in the community, and not merely transfer them to other ICE facilities. We reiterate our long-standing calls for community-based alternatives to detention, including effective, community-based case management programs.”
At the time of the visit, Berks incarcerated women as young as 18 years old from Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Peru, Russia, Turkey, and other countries. In their countries of origin, some of the women had suffered political persecution by government officials, gender-based violence, anti-LGBTQ attacks, and religious-based attacks.
“Rather than humanely welcoming these women, many of whom fled persecution and came to the United States in search of safety, the Biden administration inflicted additional trauma by detaining them in dangerous conditions, denying them medical care, separating them from their children, grandchildren, spouses, and other loved ones, subjecting them to harsh transfers in shackles, and forcing them to pass a credible fear interview or present their asylum claim to a judge while still incarcerated,” said Rebecca Gendelman, Senior Research and Policy Counsel for Refugee Protection at Human Rights First, who participated in the human rights monitoring visit. “The devastating stories these women shared with us reflect the inhumanity of immigration detention and underscore the urgent need to stop incarcerating asylum seekers and migrants.”
Women interviewed by Human Rights First and PHR reported severe anguish and anxiety because DHS separated them from their adult children, partners, and other family members at the border. Several spent weeks unable to find out where their family members were sent and remained separated from them while incarcerated at Berks.
Patricia, a Brazilian asylum-seeking grandmother whom DHS separated from her two adult children and her grandchild with whom she traveled, said: “[d]uring the whole time I was in [border custody] I had no idea where they were…I spent more than a week not knowing where my children were. I was anguished.” Clara, another asylum seeker from Brazil whom DHS separated from her husband at the border, said: “I asked [the guards] whether my husband was in the same place…they did not respond. They closed the door in my face.” Svetlana, an 18-year-old Russian woman who fled government persecution with her husband after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, told us: “[t]hey [DHS] separated my husband and me at the border. I just wanted to see him, talk to him. I wish I could call him to wish him a happy birthday… I haven’t spoken with him in three weeks.”
Women reported that they were denied basic necessities in border custody such as the ability to shower regularly, brush their teeth, access menstrual products, and obtain medical care, in violation of guidance for conditions in government custody.
Gabriela, a Colombian asylum seeker, told us: “I never imagined having to experience humiliation, having to beg for clean water, being made fun of by officers… they laughed at us. It has been really hard. At one point, I wished I had killed myself in Colombia instead of enduring these abuses.”
The Biden administration continues to detain asylum seekers and migrants in detention centers across the country, where they suffer human rights abuses and are deprived of liberty in violation of international human rights law, as documented in a comprehensive April 2022 Human Rights First report. While the closure of Berks is a critical and welcome step, the Biden administration must stop incarcerating asylum seekers and migrants in other detention centers and use its legal authority to release them to pursue their immigration cases while living safely in U.S. communities.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.