Reflections on the Growth of Family Detention — From Two Years Ago to Today

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7637108374_55f0c40cb5_k-684x1024_600Today, I like to share a guest post from Rosalynd Erney, LIRS Policy Advocate. Rosalynd began her time at LIRS as a Lutheran Volunteer Corps member. On her first day nearly two years ago, she traveled to a family detention center. Today, the use of family detention has skyrocketed. She reflects on this development here: 

On my first day at LIRS, I hopped in a car with other advocacy staff and drove out to Leesport, Pennsylvania for an open house tour of the Berks County family detention center. On our three-hour drive from Washington, D.C., I learned that at that time, the Berks County Residential Facility was the only facility in the nation used to detain migrant and refugee families, including young children.

Looking back on my notes from that day in August, 2013, next to the facility’s average daily capacity (84) and its average length of stay (60 days), I had circled one word: “Why?”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has operated the Berks County facility since 2001. From 2006-2009, ICE also operated the 512-bed T. Don Hutto Correction Center in Taylor, Texas as a family detention center. However, after reports emerged that children as young as eight months old were forced to wear prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open-air toilets, had their movement highly restricted, and were subjected to disciplinary tactics, ICE closed the Hutto family facility in 2009 amidst protests and litigation.

In comparison, what I saw at the Berks facility at first didn’t seem that bad. Families, the majority of whom were seeking asylum, had access to an “outdoor campus,” free range of motion throughout the facility from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and access to kitchenettes on both residential floors. There were two separate classrooms for elementary and high school-aged children. Looking around, we could see children playing, and mothers talking together or reading. It almost seemed relatively normal, except for the constant presence of guards and the unmistakable chain link fence surrounding the facility. I couldn’t shake the feeling that no matter how nice the facility looked, it was still a jail.

Little did I know that less than a year after our tour, the Obama Administration would begin massively expanding the practice of family detention in response to an increase in children and families seeking safety in the United States from Central America. Over a span of six months, the Berks facility would become the smallest facility used to detain mothers and children. New facilities were built and opened in the summer of 2014 in New Mexico (now closed) and Texas. Together, the three currently operating family detention facilities will have the capacity to detain more than 3,700 mothers and children at an astronomical cost of more than $340 per person, per day.

Already, we’ve heard of children becoming depressed and losing weight while in detention. At the now-closed Artesia, New Mexico facility, one mother was forced to bottle-feed her six-year-old daughter to prevent her from being force fed through a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter). More recently, we’ve heard of the trauma experienced by an 11-year-old child who was placed in solitary confinement along with his mother as punishment for her participation in a hunger strike at the Karnes facility in Texas.

After almost two years since my tour of Berks, I still have yet to find an answer to my simple question. Why do we detain mothers and their children, over half of whom are under 6 years old, when there are viable alternatives? Why do we continue to place families fleeing violence and seeking asylum in jail-like facilities? Why do we risk retraumatizing survivors of abuse, violence or human trafficking by placing them in confinement?

Detention is no place for children and families. LIRS has continuously and tirelessly advocated for an end to the practice of family detention and promoted the use of community-based alternatives to detention.

Please consider joining us by taking action through our Action Center and urging your elected representatives to end this arbitrary and inhumane practice and support alternatives that are smarter, more cost-effective, and uphold our commitment to welcoming and protecting the stranger.

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