Prison Scandal: Brooklyn's Version Of Abu Ghraib?

Even as the Pentagon seeks to quell the furor over Abu Ghraib, the Justice Department is trying to make sure a similar scandal doesn't erupt closer to home. At issue: more than 300 hours of secret videotapes from a U.S. prison facility in Brooklyn, N.Y., where many Arab and Muslim detainees were incarcerated in the months after 9/11. On the tapes, according to a report by federal investigators, prison guards slam inmates into walls, twist their arms and wrists and subject them to humiliating strip searches in which, in some cases, male prisoners were forced to stand naked in the presence of female guards; in others, prison guards "laughed, exchanged suggestive looks and made funny noises."

The existence of the tapes was first disclosed late last year in a blistering report on conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn by the Justice Department's inspector general. But the tapes got little attention at the time, in part because only a handful of blurry stills from the videos were released. But now attorneys in two lawsuits filed against top Justice officials on behalf of former inmates tell NEWSWEEK they plan to push for full release of the videos, arguing that, as with Abu Ghraib, the visual evidence can make the case far more powerfully than mere allegations from prisoners. "There are clear parallels here," says Nancy Chang, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has brought one of the cases. So far, Justice has refused to release any of the tapes. One reason, says Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne, is that disclosure could violate the "privacy" rights of the prison guards, about a dozen of whom are being investigated for possible disciplinary action. (Federal prosecutors recently closed a criminal probe of the guards, in part because the victims had all been deported to foreign countries and weren't available to testify, one official says.)

The allegations of mistreatment date back to the Justice Department's post-9/11 round-up of more than 1,200 foreign nationals largely on minor immigration violations. None was ever charged with any terror-related crimes. In response to complaints, the Justice I.G. launched an investigation into the handling of the inmates at the Brooklyn facility. Prison officials first denied any mistreatment; one official insisted staff members were "very polite" with the detainees. Then investigators discovered the videotapes hidden in a storage locker. Among the most egregious of the abuses documented on the tapes, investigators found, were repeated and degrading strip searches that were used "to intimidate and punish detainees." (In a lawsuit filed this month, one Muslim former inmate alleges that he was subjected to repetitive strip searches at the Brooklyn facility, in which guards inserted a flashlight and pencil into his rectum.) Dunne says the Bureau of Prisons has already taken steps to address the I.G. report, including a new "zero tolerance" policy for abuse of inmates, and another--about to be announced--forbidding any videotaping of strip searches. "We've taken these findings very seriously," he says.