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Mothers in Family Detention Launch Hunger Strike: ‘We Will Get Out Alive or Dead’

Tina Vasquez

The hunger strikers at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania are responding to recent comments made by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in which he said the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days. The women say they've been in detention with their children between 270 and 365 days.

On Monday, 22 mothers detained inside Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center, one of the two remaining family detention centers in the country, launched a hunger strike in response to recent comments made by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Jeh Johnson in which he said the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days.

The average length of stay for the 22 hunger strikers has been between 270 and 365 days, they say.

Erika Almiron, director of the immigrant rights organization Juntos and a core member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, informed the women detained inside Berks of Johnson’s recent comment via email, hoping they would want to release a statement that her organization could help amplify. Instead, the women decided to launch a hunger strike, with recent reports indicating the number of participants has risen to 26.

“When Johnson said [ICE] only detain[s] people for 20 days, he said that thinking that no one would care,” Almiron told Rewire. “Our goal has always been to make people aware of the inhumane nature of detention in general, but also that children are being locked up and moms are being held indefinitely.”

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By definition, “family detention” means the women in Berks are detained alongside their children, who range in age from 2 to 16 years old. In an open letter addressed to Johnson, the women share that their children have routinely expressed suicidal thoughts as a direct result of being imprisoned. The women allege that they are being threatened by psychologists and doctors in the detention center for making this information public, but are choosing to move forward with the hunger strike.

In part, the letter reads:

The teenagers say being here, life makes no sense, that they would like to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare, and on many occasions they ask us if we have the courage to escape. Other kids grab their IDs and tighten them around their necks and say that they are going to kill themselves if they don’t get out of here. The youngest kids (2 years old) cry at night for not being able to express what they feel … We are desperate and we have decided that: we will get out alive or dead. If it is necessary to sacrifice our lives so that our children can have freedom: We will do it!

An August 2015 report about the Berks center by Human Rights First, a human rights advocacy organization, seemed to confirm what women and children detained inside of the facility have been saying since the detention center’s inception in 2001: Detention is no place for families and being imprisoned is detrimental to the health and well-being of children.

According to the Human Rights First report, detained parents in Berks experience depression, which only exacerbates the trauma they experienced in their countries of origin, and their children exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, and increased aggression. Frequent room checks that take place at 15-minute intervals each night also result in children experiencing insomnia, fear, and anxiety, the report says.

Families detained inside of Berks have no real means to alleviate these symptoms because the facility does not provide adequate mental health care, according to the report. Human Rights First notes that Berks does not have Spanish-speaking mental health providers, “though the majority of families sent to family detention in the United States are Spanish-speaking and many have suffered high rates of trauma, physical and sexual violence, and exploitation.”

The organization also explains that only 23 of the total staff at Berks (or less than 40 percent) reportedly speak some conversational Spanish, “making it difficult for many staff members to effectively communicate with children and their parents.”

Berks has a history of human rights abuses. A 41-year-old former counselor at Berks was recently sentenced to between six and 23 months of jail time for the repeated sexual assault of a 19-year-old asylum-seeking mother. The young woman, along with her 3-year-old son, fled sexual domestic violence in her native Honduras. The assaults on the young mother at the detention center were witnessed by at least one of the children detained with her.

There have also been health-care issues at Berks, including the failure by the detention center to provide adequate services, according to Human Rights First.

The organization was able to collect some of the letters women detained at Berks wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), along with ICE’s response to their concerns. One woman, detained at Berks for four months, told ICE that her 5-year-old daughter had diarrhea for three weeks and that the detention center’s doctor failed to provide her child with any medication or other care. The woman asked for “adequate medication” for her daughter and for the opportunity to have her asylum case handled outside of detention. ICE’s response: “Thank you! You may disolve [sic] your case at any time and return to your country. Please use the medical department [at Berks] in reference to health related issues.”

Using family detention as a way to handle migrants, especially those fleeing violence in Central America, has been called inhumane by many, including activists, advocates, mental health specialists, and religious leaders. But the prolonged detainment of women and children at Berks is in violation of ICE’s own standards.

In June of 2015, Johnson announced a series of reforms, including measures aimed at reducing the length of family detention stays for families who had passed a protection screening. But then earlier this month, Johnson defended family detention, saying, “The department has added flexibility consistent with the terms of the [Flores] settlement agreement in times of influx. And we’ve been, by the standard of 1997, at an influx for some time now. And so what we’ve been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these facilities is 20 days or less. And we’re meeting that standard.”

But all of the 22 mothers on hunger strike at Berks have been in detention for months, according to the letter they sent Johnson.

There’s also the issue that in July, a federal appeals court ordered DHS to end family detention because it violates Flores v. Johnson, which determined that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed detention centers. Soon after, family detention centers scrambled to get licensed as child-care facilities (a battle they’re losing in Texas), but the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) licensed Berks to operate as a children’s delinquency center. In October 2015, PA DHS decided not to renew the license, which would have expired February 21, 2016, because the facility holds asylum-seeking families as opposed to only children, as the license permitted. Berks appealed the decision to not renew its license, and continues to operate until it receives a ruling on that appeal.

“Our argument from the start has been that we don’t think any of this is legal,” Almiron told Rewire in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “What is happening inside of Berks is illegal. I have no idea how they continue to operate. Right now, Berks does not have a license. It was revoked because the license they did have didn’t fit what they were doing. They also have prolonged detention. Women who are hunger striking have been there 360-something days, but then Jeh Johnson says it’s only 20 days. There is no accountability with DHS or ICE. There are numerous ways [DHS and ICE are] not accountable, but Berks is a prime example. There is no transparency and they can to change the law whenever they like.”

Neither DHS nor Berks responded to requests for comment from Rewire.

Advocates have expressed concerns that the women in Berks will be retaliated against by ICE and detention center employees because of their participation in the hunger strike. As Rewire reported, when women at Texas’ T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former family detention center, launched a hunger strike in November 2015, participants alleged that ICE used solitary confinement and transferred hunger strikers to different facilities, moving them further from their family in the area and their legal counsel. ICE denied a hunger strike was even taking place.

In December 2015, men detained at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, ended a 14-day hunger strike after a local judge authorized officials to force-feed one of the hunger strikers because of his “deteriorating health” due to dehydration. Advocates told Rewire force-feeding was being used as a form of retaliation.

Almiron said the hunger strikers at Berks have already been threatened by guards, who told the women that if they continue to hunger strike and they get too weak, their children will be taken away from them. The organizer said the letter the women wrote to Johnson shows their bravery, and their understanding that they are willing to take whatever risk necessary to help their children.

“Honestly, I think they’ve been retaliated against the moment they came to this country. The fact that they’re in detention is retaliation against their human survival,” Almiron said. “Retaliation happens in detention centers all the time, women are threatened with deportation for asking for medical care for their children. These women are incredibly strong. In my eyes, they’re heroes and they’re committed to this fight to end family detention, and so are we.”

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