Published on Saturday, May 21, 2005 by the Los Angeles Times
Inaction in New York Prison Abuse Stirs Anger
Justice officials called the treatment of immigrants after 9/11 outrageous. The Bureau of Prisons has not held anyone to account
by Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano
WASHINGTON — It was the first prison abuse scandal of the post-Sept. 11 era, when scores of immigrants were rounded up and jailed in New York after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
They were never charged with terrorism — but they endured abusive treatment that Justice Department investigators concluded was outrageous and cruel. It included being slammed into walls and subjected to unnecessary body cavity searches, some of it captured on videotape.
More than three years after the incidents, despite a recommendation from the department's internal watchdog that a dozen correctional officers be disciplined, no one has been held to account. A Bureau of Prisons official said the agency was still reviewing the matter and "working as expeditiously as possible."
"It is important that our investigation be thorough and complete, leaving no stone unturned," spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said.
But the inaction has triggered criticism from human rights groups and dissension in the Justice Department. Recently, the department's inspector general expressed dismay that the Bureau of Prisons, the arm of the department overseeing the investigation, was dragging its feet.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, said he wasn't familiar with details of the matter but voiced concern.
"They need to review it," Gonzales said, "but honestly, review needs to end at some point."
The drawn-out process has angered former prisoners, many of them long since deported on immigration violations. Some have joined civil rights suits against U.S. authorities. But those actions are also stalled. The defendants, from prison guards up to former U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, argue in court papers that they are immune from legal action because the circumstances of the detentions were within the scope of their official duties.
A federal judge in Louisiana dismissed one such suit, filed on behalf of a man held in solitary confinement for 73 days after Sept. 11, saying that security-related decisions by prison administrators deserved "great deference."
"They let them get away with it," said Yasser Ebrahim, who after Sept. 11 spent more than eight months in solitary at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, a maximum-security facility that has been the focal point of the abuse investigation.
Now Ebrahim is back in his native Alexandria, Egypt, running a jewelry business with his brother, who was also incarcerated for months at the Brooklyn jail. Ebrahim is a plaintiff in a class-action suit that a group of former prisoners has filed in Brooklyn federal court. He said he had a software business in the United States and was arrested because his visa renewal was a month overdue.
He alleges he was abusively strip-searched and subjected to inhumane conditions, including sleep deprivation, denial of medical care and interference with his ability to practice his Muslim faith.
He also says he was physically abused. Guards slammed him face-first against prison walls, leaving him with a bruised and bloodied nose for weeks, he said. Guards often stomped on his leg chains with their boots, causing excruciating pain, he said.
"Here in Egypt, I would say 'Yes, this could happen to anybody.' In America, it was shocking and disappointing," Ebrahim said by phone from Egypt. "We learned everything about democracy and human rights from the United States."
He is being represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York advocacy group.
Lawyers for other foreign nationals picked up across the country after Sept. 11 said Ebrahim's experience was hardly unique, and they were struck by the lack of progress in the lawsuits. One problem is that so many of the plaintiffs were deported, making it harder to press their abuse claims in U.S. courts where they might testify at a trial. Prosecutors have appeared reluctant to track down victims once they are no longer in the U.S. to make a case.
Karen Pennington, a Dallas lawyer, represented Majid al Shaihri when he was jailed in Denton, Texas. "He got down to 80 pounds in jail, and apparently had a bad ear infection," she recalled. "But instead of treating that, they pulled some of his teeth."
Her client was eventually deported to Saudi Arabia because his visa was out of status. His American-born wife "talked about a lawsuit," but Pennington said nothing came of it.
The guards defend their conduct, saying they performed well under difficult circumstances. Many at the Brooklyn facility lost friends and acquaintances in the collapse of the twin towers, and helped recover their remains at ground zero. The union representing the guards initially asked management to consider housing the detainees in another city because emotions were running high.
"I think our guys stayed very professional," said Phil Glover, president of the Council of Prison Locals of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents federal correctional workers, including those at the Brooklyn jail. The union is preparing to help defend guards if charges are brought.
"When you are under a microscope, you can find all kinds of things wrong," Glover said.
The dragnet in New York was controversial from the start, stirring allegations of racial profiling as hundreds of foreign nationals, most of Arab and South Asian descent, were rounded up and jailed. The arrests were largely based on violations of federal immigration law, such as having an expired visa, which were previously considered minor.
Attention soon focused on the Brooklyn facility, where authorities held 84 detainees considered to be "of high interest." A report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine in June 2003 identified problems at the facility and criticized immigration and prison authorities, saying they held suspects too long and inappropriately denied them access to family members and lawyers.
Fine's investigators also found evidence of physical and verbal abuse, but were initially unable to corroborate the allegations. At the time, the guards denied they did anything wrong, and prison officials claimed that key evidence — videotapes from a prison recording system from the months after Sept. 11 — had been destroyed.
Many of the tapes later surfaced in a prison storage room — whether they were lost or intentionally hidden remains unclear — and in stark detail they revealed guards slamming inmates against walls, among other acts.
Armed with the tapes, Fine issued a follow-up report detailing myriad problems and evidence that officers "slammed detainees against the wall, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains, and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods of time."
The report also identified a bizarre jailhouse ritual in which guards would "escort detainees down a hall at a brisk pace and ram them into a wall without slowing down before impact." Some were apparently slammed against a wall where a T-shirt hung with a picture of the American flag. The shirt bore the slogan "These Colors Don't Run" — and bloodstains.
The report touched off a public outcry, and tended to legitimize accusations that former prisoners were making in their private suits.
For example, an Egyptian restaurant worker detained in Brooklyn, Ehab Elmaghraby, alleged in a suit in Brooklyn federal court that guards "willfully and maliciously pushed a pencil" into his anal cavity during a strip search. Elmaghraby said guards inserted a flashlight during another search, which caused rectal bleeding.
Billingsley, the Bureau of Prisons official, said prosecutors conducted a separate criminal investigation of the guards, but no charges were brought. She said that investigation contributed to the delay in the bureau's internal inquiry.
Fine recommended in a private report that 10 Bureau of Prisons employees be disciplined and two others receive counseling. He also recommended that current employers of four staff members who left the prison bureau be notified about their involvement in the case.
"Unfortunately, a year and a half after issuance of our report, the BOP still is reviewing the matter and has not imposed any discipline," Fine told another House committee recently.
Deputy Atty. Gen. James Comey, acknowledging the mistreatment of prisoners, told the same subcommittee: "No excuse for that. Unacceptable. Not what the American people want done."
© 2005 Los Angeles Times