Friday, August 7, 2009

What about Berks?

The numerous reports highlighting the transfer of families from Hutto to Berks have brought attention to this rather under-publicized family residential facility, and I thought I'd provide some information about Berks. (The Reading Eagle reports, however, that the Berks Family Shelter Care Center is full. See previous post.)

Berks was opened in March of 2001, as an extension of Berks County's contract with then-INS' juvenile detention program. It is located on a large tract of land in Bernville Township that holds a number of county services: recycling, water treatment, an elderly care facility, a prison, a youth corrections center, a juvenile detention center, a community college, and an agricultural center.

The family detention center is located in an old nursing home, built in the 1950s. Still called Berks Heim by locals, the facility was a state of the art residence for elderly folks that required specialized care. Built as a residence, rather than a prison, Berks has been held up as an alternative to T Don Hutto. Licensed by the state of Pennsylvania and run according to child welfar principles, Berks has not been subject to the same media or legal attention as Hutto.

But as the Women's Refugee Commission's Michell Brané pointed out in Locking up Family Values, Berks is far from perfect. In response to ICE's policy change, Brané maintains: "While conditions there were not as shocking as those at Hutto, they are not appropriate. For example, children over five, are separated from their parents at night. We believe that families should not be detained unless absolutely necessary and only for an extremely short period of time.” (See the Women's Commissions full press release here.)

Both the ACLU and the Women's Commission (as well as others) have argued the authority structure of detention is harmful to families, since it strips parents of their role as arbiters of the family unit. While much of the attention has been focused on the conditions of detention, people often forget the effects any institutional environment will have on the less tangible--but fundamental--relationships between parents and children.

Mentioned even less often is how institutionalization effects relationships between parents, since their contact is highly constrained. Married couples cannot, for example, sleep together nor show affection towards each other. These kinds of relationships require some degree of privacy, which is difficult to balance with security and authority structures inherent to institutional custody.

There is no research on this, but as human beings, we can expect that compiling the stress of filing and pursuing claims with an inability to care for each other in familiar ways will have long terms effects on family relationships. This points to the larger question, which Brané has repeated asked, about the suitability detaining any families at all.