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Scenes from video inside Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center shows guards allegedly pressing detainees' heads against the wall. (Department Of Justice Photos)
Tapes Show Abuse of 9/11 Detainees
Justice Department Examines Videos Prison Officials Said Were Destroyed
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2003; Page A01
Hundreds of videotapes that federal prison officials had claimed were destroyed show that foreign nationals held at a New York detention facility after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were victims of physical and verbal abuse by guards, the Justice Department's inspector general said yesterday.
An investigation by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine also found that officials at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, N.Y., which is run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, improperly taped meetings between detainees and their lawyers, and used excessive strip searches and restraints to punish those in confinement.
The report concluded that as many as 20 guards were involved in the abuse, which included slamming prisoners against walls and painfully twisting their arms and hands. Fine recommended discipline for 10 employees and counseling for two others who remain employed by the federal prison system. He also said the government should notify the employers of four former guards about their conduct.
"Some officers slammed and bounced 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 said. "We determined that the way these MDC staff members handled some detainees was, in many respects, unprofessional, inappropriate and in violation of BOP policy."
One focus of the report was an American flag T-shirt that hung from a wall at the MDC with the slogan, "These colors don't run." Four corrections employees told investigators that the shirt, which hung in a prisoner receiving area for months, was covered with bloodstains, including some that appeared to have come from detainees being slammed into the wall.
A report issued by Fine in June found "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" at the Brooklyn detention facility's Special Housing Unit, where 84 of the men picked up after the Sept. 11 attacks were held. But investigators said then that firm conclusions on abuse were impossible in many cases because of the lack of videotapes, which prison administrators said at the time had been destroyed.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said yesterday that federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and in the department's Civil Rights Division were reviewing the report to determine whether criminal charges were warranted. The Justice Department had previously declined to pursue any prosecutions in the cases.
"We agree with the inspector general that even the intense emotional atmosphere surrounding the attacks, particularly in New York City, where smoke was still rising from the rubble of Ground Zero, is no excuse for abhorrent behavior by Bureau of Prisons personnel," Corallo said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that the alleged misconduct of a few employees detracts from the fine work done by the correctional personnel at MDC and around the nation, who conducted themselves professionally and appropriately."
Bureau of Prisons officials declined to comment, referring all questions to the Justice Department.
Barbara J. Olshansky, deputy legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based civil liberties group that is suing the federal government on behalf of detainees, said the report "is astounding confirmation of what we've alleged all along. This goes into exactly what kind of physical and verbal abuse there was and what the contradictions of the government's position has been. . . . It's clear that there was no provocation at any point, and clear that there was no justification for excessive force at any point."
A federal dragnet after the Sept. 11 attacks resulted in the detention of more than 1,200 foreign nationals, including 762 people who were the focus of Fine's original probe. Most were of Arab or South Asian descent and were held on immigration violations under a directive from Attorney General John D. Ashcroft while authorities attempted to determine whether they were connected to the attack or to terrorist groups. None was ever charged with terrorism-related crimes, however.
Many of the incidents of abuse were confirmed when investigators viewed more than 300 videotapes recorded from October to November 2001 that showed detainees being moved around the facility and within their cells, investigators said. Corrections officers who had been interviewed earlier had denied that many of the incidents occurred. MDC Warden Michael Zenk and other officials repeatedly told Fine's investigators that the videotapes had been destroyed as part of a recycling policy, the report said.
The tapes eventually located in August had not been included on inventory sheets provided by the prison and were held in a storage room that also had not been disclosed to investigators, the report said. Many tapes from the period are still missing, and there are unexplained gaps the ones that were found, the report shows.
Many detainees also told investigators that, in the month before the installation of the camera system in October 2001, jail conditions and abuse had been much worse, the report noted. The cameras were installed in part to protect jail officers from unwarranted allegations, Fine said.
"If the camera wasn't on, I would have bashed your face," one detainee was allegedly told by a guard. "The camera is your best friend."
Fine said in an interview that the prison system's failure to turn over all the videotapes "significantly delayed and hindered our investigation," but "we did not find sufficient evidence to prove it was an effort to cover anything up."
He said he remained concerned about allegations of abuse in the weeks before the installation of a video system. "If these incidents are an indication of what was done in front of the camera, what may have occurred without them?" Fine asked. "It's cause for significant concern."
The public version of the report released yesterday does not name individual corrections officers or detainees, but it does describe in detail an unspecified number of violent incidents captured on film or witnessed by guards and law enforcement officials. Several lieutenants and officers interviewed by investigators indicated that they had seen incidents of abuse. One lieutenant told another that "slamming detainees against the wall was all part of being in jail and not to worry about it," the report said.
Another MDC officer said in an affidavit that "there were some lieutenants . . . who would [rein] in an officer for bouncing a detainee against the wall, but there were probably other lieutenants who would let it slide."
During two incidents captured on videotape, the report said, "we observed officers escort detainees down a hall at a brisk pace and ram them into a wall without slowing down before impact." In the numerous "slamming" incidents recorded on tape, the report said, there was no evidence that the detainees had provoked or attacked the guards.
On more than 40 occasions, the report found, MDC staff members recorded detainees' visits with their attorneys using video cameras set up on tripods outside visiting rooms. The tapes routinely captured "significant portions" of conversations between the detainees and legal counsel. In some cases, detainees were instructed not to speak in Arabic or to speak in English because they were being taped.
Such taping is a violation of federal regulations, Fine's investigation found. Prisons rules permit videotaping, but not audiotaping, of attorney visits.
Zenk, the prison warden, told investigators that the cameras were moved farther from the visiting room after an attorney complained in November 2001. But the report says that "as late as February 2002, conversations between detainees and their attorneys are still audible on many of the tapes."
Although the taping "potentially stifled detainees' open and free communications with legal counsel," the report noted that some of the recordings include allegations of physical and verbal abuse that were consistent with the allegations being probed.
The report found two incidents in which inmates were locked in restraints for more than seven hours despite no signs of resistance.