Berks County Residential Center

READING, Pa. – The Berks County commissioners heard criticism Thursday regarding the county's contract with the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency as it relates to the Berks County Residential Center in Bern Township.

Celine Schrier of Reading asked how the commissioners can continue to put people at risk for a budget item.

"The commissioners are continuing private negotiations to convert the Berks facility into a women's prison, or something else that we still don't know because they refuse to disclose this," Schrier said. "It doesn't matter if it's women, men, or families; no form of detention is humane. I am tired of hearing you lie about the conditions so you can feel better about accepting blood money from ICE."

The residential center was one of three such facilities in the United States where ICE detained families with children who are seeking asylum, but late last month, it was announced that all individuals were released from the facility.

Two weeks ago, the commissioners approved sending a letter of support to ICE for a white paper proposal for the center, without disclosing any details.

The county currently has a contract to lease the facility to the federal government.

Based on documents filed last week in federal court, it appears the center will be converted to a detention center for adults.

Wyomissing resident Tonya Wenger criticized the alleged plans and called on the commissioners to shut down the center for good.

"I am extremely upset to learn that ICE and our commissioners are making plans to convert the center into a jail for immigrant women," Wenger said. "It is a victory for the people of Berks County, that those families that exposed the countless abuses of ICE at this center were released. The commissioners who support this move to a women's detention are showing they care more about the lucrative benefit of criminalizing detention over the humane treatment of asylum-seeking immigrants."

Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach corrected the allegations, saying the county does not know what the future of the facility will be.

"We are still under the same contract we had with ICE and we are waiting to hear from ICE regarding the future," he said.

But Leinbach took umbrage to many of the comments made regarding the treatment of past residents of the center.

"People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts," Leinbach said. "The way people have been taken care of in the center has been a good thing. If there was anything remotely close to the lies and distortions from the folks who want to see the facility closed, the commonwealth would have easily been able to close the facility a long time ago."

Leinbach said the facility's employees take their jobs very seriously and have always treated residents with care.

"I am tired of their reputations being attacked and maligned with things that are not true," he said. "Let's not make claims that are not backed up by facts."

Commissioner Michael S. Rivera echoed Leinbach's comments on the work the staff does.

"We need to go based on facts and not what we hear from other people," Rivera said. "I want to thank the staff there for treating people humanely."

Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt said he agreed with the comments made by his fellow commissioners.

In other business, Leinbach noted that it was March 12 of last year when the Berks County emergency declaration was made over COVID-19.

Leinbach said the pandemic claimed 842 lives – of confirmed COVID-19 positive cases – during the past year.

Brian Gottschall, the county's director of emergency services, said after weeks of downward trends in COVID-19 cases, this week has seen an upward tick in newly-reported cases.

"We generally consider that as early trending indicators of [future] case counts," he said. "We need to continue to act cautiously."

But Gottschall noted that case counts in Berks hospitals are looking very good when compared to the statewide numbers.

On the vaccination efforts, Leinbach praised the efforts of the smaller, locally-owned pharmacies.

"The pharmacy owners are extremely concerned about helping the community," Leinbach said. "They have gone outside of the normal vaccination efforts to participate in mass vaccinations."

Also related to COVID-19, the commissioners voted to allow Co-County Wellness to perform additional services in connection with the contact tracing program to create and staff a call center to assist with scheduling vaccination appointments.

Last week, the commissioners announced that through a cooperative partnership, the county will be opening a COVID-19 vaccination clinic somewhere in Muhlenberg Township and that Co-County Wellness plans to facilitate a call center to make appointments, specifically for people who do not have access to the internet.

Co-County has handled the contact tracing for COVID-19 since June. Since then, Barnhardt said 9,400 contacts have been made, with an overall success rate of 73%.

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