Black Hole in Brooklyn


On a bleak block in Sunset Park, under the BQE, looms the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), the high-security federal prison to which untold numbers of Arabs and South Asians have been whisked after being nabbed from their taxis, mosques, and apartments. More post-September 11 detainees have been jailed in county facilities in New Jersey, but critics say MDC houses some of the worst constitutional and human rights violations by the federal government in these cases.

It is a black hole, they say, where immigrants disappear for months into extreme isolation and deprivation, only to come out the other end accused of no crime that justifies their jail time.

Shakir Baloch was one of those who vanished into the MDC “hole”—solitary confinement—for many months, later winding up at home in Canada, a free and, as far as he can tell, unmonitored man. Last week he spoke by phone with the Voice about his incarceration, bolstering the claims of lawyers and advocates who have filed complaints of cruel conditions and wrangled an ongoing investigation of MDC by the U.S. Office of Inspector General.

“In the beginning, I was thinking, [September 11] was a very big incident. They’re doing detention for security purposes. They have a right,” said Baloch. A limo driver at the time, he was arrested in New York on September 19, not charged with anything, and confined in solitary for five months. For several months, no one knew where he was.

“After a while, I was like, why are they taking so long, not giving me the right to call people, not giving me a lawyer?” he said.

Baloch spent 23 and a half hours a day alone in his cell under bright lights that were always on, without television or, often, even reading material. He was shackled hand and foot when outside. He had only hints that dozens of others—perhaps 50 or more, according to lawyers—were similarly confined. “Through the small window, I saw the guards taking others,” he said. And he heard rumors that other detainees were attempting suicide.

His wife eventually tracked him down, and Baloch got a lawyer who, outraged at the imprisonment without cause, filed a habeas corpus petition. As previously reported by the Voice, Baloch was charged promptly thereafter with illegally crossing the U.S.-Canada border—before September 11, a rarely prosecuted offense. He ultimately pled guilty to that and using a fake social security card and was sentenced to time served.

He was deported in April without his identification documents or belongings. In Canada, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and severe depression. Not long ago considered too dangerous to mingle with other inmates, Baloch was approved by a doctor to collect public assistance. He said he had been told to take it easy and not seek work for six months.

Worse than the confinement itself was the injustice of it, said Baloch. The day he was arrested, he said, “They told me, ‘You will be going to Canada tomorrow. You have your flight at six o’clock in the morning.’ ” So he thought nothing of signing a piece of paper waiving his right to seek the Canadian consulate’s help.

“I didn’t know they were going to keep me for seven months,” he said.

The guards at MDC cracked jokes about his Pakistani roots and mocked his despair. A court document his lawyer filed cites physical abuse by guards. “They said, ‘There are people who’ve been here for 20 years, and they haven’t seen a judge yet,’ ” Baloch said. “I was scared. When two months were gone and I couldn’t see anybody, who knew how long it could go like that?”

Once charged and in court, he was transferred into MDC’s general population. “I was pretty happy,” he recalled, laughing at the understatement. The company of men convicted of violent felonies was welcome compared to months without any. It was then he discovered that a letter he’d written his daughter three months earlier had never been sent by the prison. “They gave me the letter back.”

The warden and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have denied MDC detainees any visits with press and sometimes, advocates say, family. Amnesty International was refused a tour of the facility in a recent investigation into detention abuses. The DOJ recently reported that 147 of an original 880 September 11 detainees remain in custody. Advocates suspect that this data excludes later arrests in the ongoing dragnet for foreigners from Middle Eastern nations.

Perhaps half a dozen of those detained in September or October are still in MDC’s “hole,” advocates say, putting their time in solitary at over half a year. Some 20 were transferred this spring into gen-pop. New arrestees keep coming. Adem Carroll, an advocate with the Islamic Circle of North America, told the Voice about a Pakistani green-card holder who was taken to MDC last week by FBI agents originally looking for his neighbor.

Meanwhile, according to press reports and advocates, those detained for many months across the country are being released or deported with petty charges or no charge at all. Not one detainee arrested since September 11 has been charged in connection with a terrorism-related crime.

The ACLU and other rights groups have filed court complaints about the poor conditions and secretiveness of the detentions. The actions are pending and could be resolved in coming weeks. A protest is planned in front of MDC at noon on July 6.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 25, 2002

Archive Highlights