At an immigrant detention center in Pennsylvania, handbooks issued to undocumented families come in English and Spanish. The information inside depends on the language in which it’s written, especially where sexual assault is concerned.
In the English manual, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement claims a “zero-tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse and sums up how to report crimes or suspicions in a single paragraph with bullet points. The Spanish version, meanwhile, fills four and a half pages and tells women not to drink or talk about sex so they won’t get assaulted during their time at the facility.
“You’re basically putting the blame on the residents,” said Reading-based attorney Jackie Kline, who represents detainees at the Berks County Residential Center.
The facility, which lies along the backroads of Leesport, houses asylum-seeking families from predominantly Central American countries. It is one of three ICE family detention centers; the other two are in Texas and tend to be used for short-term stays. Berks, on the other hand, has held women and children for up to 18 months.
As of early April, 51 immigrants were detained there, including 27 minors. Only a few adults at the facility are men. Most residents are mothers and their kids who have been assigned to expedited removal. Under President Donald Trump, expedited removal is expected to surge, affecting even more families who say they're running from danger abroad.
The information in the facility’s handbooks is ostensibly intended to protect female detainees from male aggressors, and it emphasizes the threat posed by other residents. But in reality, a vast majority of the men whom women encounter at Berks are staffers. A rape charge has never been brought against another detainee at the center, while a county employee has been convicted of sexual assault.
Counselor Daniel W. Sharkey served five months in Berks County Prison after he pleaded guilty to the institutional sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman who had already fled Honduras to escape sexual assault and domestic violence. A 7-year-old girl was the first to report the crime after she saw Sharkey and his victim having sexual relations in a bathroom.
Sharkey’s was the first case of its kind at any family immigration detention center. He was locked up for less time than the young woman whom he violated; she spent eight months at Berks.
The woman’s attorney, Matthew Archambeault, criticized the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for not preventing the assaults.
“It’s their mission to protect these [kids], and they failed,” he said.
Sharkey’s lawyer, Allan L. Sodomsky, continues to claim that his client’s actions were consensual, though a June 2016 civil lawsuit the Honduran woman brought against Sharkey and Berks details several encounters when she says she was violated against her will.
Berks’ sex politics are especially relevant now as the state comes under pressure to close the facility, which is functioning under a license to house delinquents and dependents although all of its residents are accompanied by parents. After Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services announced that it would not renew the center’s license in February 2016, Berks claimed the decision was an unfair result of controversy surrounding the center — some of which concentrated on the Sharkey case — and pursued legal action. An administrative law judge ruled last month that the attempt to shutter the facility was unfounded, but the department still could appeal in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
Because most of the mothers at Berks speak Spanish, they’re more likely to consult the Spanish-language handbook’s sexual assault section. The manual outlines procedures, like how to file a complaint, and includes definitions of relevant terms.
A subhead, “How to avoid sexual assault,” covers three-quarters of a page and makes recommendations absent in the English version of the handbook.
“Don’t consume drugs or alcohol; these substances can reduce your capacity to stay alert and make good decisions,” counsels the Spanish guide. “Don’t talk about sex. Other residents could think you’re interested in a sexual relationship.”
One piece of advice echoes a scenario from the 2014 incident, during which Sharkey gave his victim chocolate and presents for her son before demanding she have sex with him.
“Don’t accept gifts or favors from other people,” it reads. “Some people could try to force you to do something that you don’t want to do as payment for those gifts and favors.”
The handbook also suggests that women “walk in well-lit areas of the Center,” which is run by the county.
“First of all, they’re not allowed to have drugs or alcohol anyways, and the center should be providing well-lit areas,” Kline said.
Notably, Berks is not the only family detention center that advises women on how to avoid their own assaults. At Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, information on page 28 of a Spanish handbook published in June 2016 provides the same directions as in the Berks manual, with minor differences in word choice.
Pressed repeatedly for comment about its handbooks and sexual assault policies, ICE did not respond. The agency did not explain why the content of both versions was so different or whether the manuals were written at the same time. The Berks Spanish guide is dated June 2016. The English version is undated but was used as evidence in a court case the same month.
In addition to its sexual assault guidelines, Berks has implemented other practices that some advocates say view women only as sexual objects. In November 2014, the center altered its dress code, which is reflected in both the English and Spanish handbooks.
The dress code extends to all residents age 5 and older, and its rules are female-focused. Some of the restrictions include form-fitting or cleavage-exposing shirts; shorts higher than mid-thigh; and dresses and skirts, unless they are being used for religious purposes.
“This is what they told the moms," said Bridget Cambria, an attorney who defends Berks detainees. "‘Well you know, there are men who work here.’”
One of the rules stipulates that “if an article of clothing is deemed inappropriate during the day it is still inappropriate for nighttime/sleeping hours.” On one occasion, this meant that because of concerns over propriety, a 9-year-old girl was admonished for wearing shorts to sleep when she kicked off her sheets in the night. Staff awakened her and forced her to either put on long pants or keep the covers on, according to attorneys.
After Archambeault’s client reported Sharkey, the center held a meeting with all of the women to enforce the new clothing policy, he said. He called the talk “your classic victim-blaming.” His client became unpopular among other residents, who accused her of spurring changes that adversely affected them and their daughters.
Staff members also targeted her, Archambeault said. When she came forward, an employee forced her to trade in a blouse after saying it was too revealing, and she became nervous about her outfit choices.
“She would come in and she’d say, ‘I don’t know if this is appropriate dress or not.’ And she’d be wearing tee-shirts and jeans,” he said.
ICE denies a connection between the Sharkey case and a dress code change. Three months after Sharkey was accused, though, women were forced to cover their bodies so they did not make others uncomfortable.
Archambeault submitted a request for any correspondence on the dress code reform, but it was denied. All he received was the November 2014 memo that announced an alteration in policy and explained when staffers should confiscate clothing. “If any item is questionable,” it cautioned, “have the residents try on the item and have a staff of the same gender view the resident.”
Archambeault decried the policy revisions, which he said assumed all men are predators. He added that implying a woman has invited sexual assault by the way she dresses or acts “is really chilling.”
“I hate all of that,” he said. “I hate all of it, because it’s so demeaning to women, it’s so demeaning to men.”
Berks, one of 211 ICE facilities, is not the only immigrant detention center that has faced criticism over its sex policies. According to Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), between May 2014 and May 2016, 1,016 sexual abuse or assault complaints landed on a desk at the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General. But accurate figures of abuse may be much higher, Christina Fialho, co-founder of CIVIC, told NBC San Diego. Between January 2010 and July 2016, the inspector general investigated only about one percent of over 33,000 complaints leveled against ICE and related to forms of sexual misconduct.
Archambeault condemned the fact that no one at Berks expressed any remorse for what happened to his client.
“What was missing was a definitive statement saying that if this happens to you, you are a victim,” he said.