We all know that feeling when something gets lost in translation. To those of us who are bilingual, that's a constant as we try to explain to those who don't speak our first language what we mean by certain sayings or comments.
But it's not what's lost in translation that got an immigrant detention facility in Pennsylvania in trouble. Instead, it's the absurd and plainly immoral victim-blaming language found in the Spanish-language handbooks they hand out to women and girls under their care — especially after a detainee was abused by a staff member.
Berks County Residential Center is located in Leesport, Pennsylvania, and it housed 51 immigrants up until early April, at least 27 of whom were minors. The location is one of three Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention centers. Unlike the other short-term two, however, Berks has held women and children for up to 18 months, an NBC affiliate reports.
Undocumented families who are housed in the facility are given handbooks that come in both English and Spanish. However, the Spanish-language handbook’s sexual assault section contains much more content than the English-language version, filling four and a half pages that take victim-blaming to a whole new level by telling women not to “consume drugs or alcohol” because “these substances can reduce your capacity to stay alert and make good decisions,” and to not even “talk about sex,” since “[o]ther residents could think you’re interested in a sexual relationship.”
Another piece of advice tells women to not “accept gifts or favors from other people,” because “some people could try to force you to do something that you don’t want to do as payment for those gifts and favors.”
This particular piece of advice is related to a 2014 case of sexual assault involving a 19-year-old woman who had escaped Honduras over domestic violence and sexual abuse only to be exposed to the same fate under ICE's care.
Since undocumented individuals detained at Berks are mostly women and children, their only contact with men is through Berks' staff. In the 19-year-old's case, her abuser was Counselor Daniel W. Sharkey, who served only five months in Berks County Prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault.
Sharkey had allegedly given the victim chocolate and gifts for her son before demanding she had sexual relations with him. As he sexually abused her in a bathroom, a 7-year-old girl witnessed the act, later reporting it to the facility's staff.
He was locked away for less time than his victim, as she spent eight more months at the detention center.
The victim's attorney, Matthew Archambeault, blamed the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for this case, saying that it is their “mission to protect these [kids], and they failed.” But what's worse is that, in her June 2016 civil lawsuit, Sharkey's victim detailed several accounts of being violated against her will, demonstrating that the facility did little to protect its detainees.
After the Honduran woman's case was first reported in 2014, the culture of victim-blaming continued unchecked in the facility. It was particularly visible with the center's change in its dress code.
The new rules, which are all female-based, prohibit cleavage-exposing and form-fitting tops; shorts that leave more than half of the thighs exposed, and skirts or dresses, which are only allowed when worn for religious purposes. According to Archambeault, this happened because of his client's case.
After Sharkey was implicated in abuse, the center met with all detained women to ensure they knew the new clothing policy and that they were covering their bodies so male staff wouldn't be made uncomfortable.
This wasn't received well by other detainees who blamed the Honduran sexual assault victim for the new restrictions. The center's “classic victim-blaming,” as Archambeault put it, ended up making his client even more nervous during the remaining time she spent at Berks. Still, ICE claims that the dress code rule change had nothing to do with the Sharkey case.
Aside from the sex scandals, the facility has other problems as well.
As it stands, Berks has kept its doors open by relying on a license that houses delinquents and dependents, however, all of its detainees are accompanied by their parents. Due to this technical issue, the state's Department of Human Services decided to announce they would not renew the center's license by February 2016 to which Berks took legal action, claiming DHS had threatened the center's license because of controversies like the Sharkey case
Last month, the department's attempt to shut down Berks was ruled as unfounded, giving human services the option to appeal in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
It's incredible that a facility with a case of serious abuse under its belt would have the courage to turn this on the victims, blaming them for the abuse they might suffer under their care. If anything, they should be closed for this behavior alone so that others don't follow suit.