At a daylong briefing on immigration detention Friday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington heard testimony on a range of issues, including "institutional sexual assault" and the criminal charges filed recently against a guard at the Berks County Residential Center.
The Leesport facility, under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, houses immigrants and their children while they await deportation proceedings.
The guard, Daniel W. Sharkey, 40, of West Reading, was charged Jan. 16 over his alleged involvement with a 19-year-old Honduran woman who was housed at the facility with her 3-year-old son. He was not identified before the commission.
When the woman was sent to Berks, the guard gave her favors and said he could help her immigration case, testified Carl Takei, an American Civil Liberties union staff attorney.
"When he initiated sex with her," said Takei, "she did not feel comfortable saying no."
Because a guard exercises so much control over a detained person, including when she eats and sleeps or is punished, said Takei, "notions of consent have little meaning in this context."
That's why, he said, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 treats any sexual contact with a guard as a form of sexual abuse, regardless of apparent consent.
Sharkey's lawyer, Allan Sodomsky of Reading, said Friday night: "Prior to any evidence being presented, it's not fair for people to assume that Mr. Sharkey is guilty."
The commission also heard other testimony about whether PREA is being adhered to by immigration facilities. The bipartisan panel is charged with advising the president and Congress on civil rights, and with issuing a federal civil rights enforcement report.
Sharkey, who left the residential center in August, was charged after a four-month investigation by ICE internal affairs and Bern Township police.
Matthew Archambeault, the Philadelphia lawyer who represents the woman, was present for Friday's hearing. In December he told The Inquirer that the Sharkey brought his client little gifts from the vending machines, and let her use a cellphone. He described those actions as "grooming."
Sharkey is free pending a Feb. 10 preliminary hearing in Reading, said Archambeault. The woman and her son were released, and are living with her mother in Atlanta while her immigration case plays out.
As for whether the message about PREA and consent came through clearly Friday, Archambeault said: "I think everyone in the room got it."