New York Diary: Greenwich Village Room with a View

WRITING - John Bloom

If you live at 201 Varick Street in Greenwich Village, you might be able to look out your eastern- exposure window and see nightclubbers arriving at S.O.B.s. That's the hot Latin dance club where Astrud Gilberto, "The Girl from Ipanema," appears once a month. (The initials stand for "Sounds of Brazil.")

Or if your view is to the northwest, you might be able to make out sunbathing actors on the roof of The Printing House fitness center. Look a little to the right and try to spot the elegant townhome of former Mayor Ed Koch, or the notorious "Henrietta Hudson" lesbian bar.

To the west, of course, is the Hudson River, and the converted pier where they film "Law and Order."

To the south are the trendy restaurants of Soho and, beyond that, the hole in New York's heart where the twin towers once stood. They're still smoking. You can still see the cloud.

But if you live at 201 Varick, you won't be doing any salsa- dancing, exercising, dining out or sightseeing. This grey and brown building, which looks like it might be residential lofts, or the headquarters of some trendy video production company, is actually a prison.

They don't call it a prison. Officially it's the Manhattan Service Processing Center, or, in local parlance, "the detention center." There's no sign to identify its business--just armed guards at the main entrance who shoo visitors to a side street. Every day thousands of people pour out of the Seventh Avenue subway at Houston Street and walk right past it. They use the post office on the ground floor, even go to various federal offices that can be entered by special appointment at an out-of- the-way entrance--and most of them remain blissfully unaware that this is where they keep the suspected terrorists.

At last count there were 803 people "detained" after the World Trade attacks. Not arrested. Not indicted. Not even identified. Their names are secret and their locations are secret, but it's a good bet that the most notorious of them are spending their days in Greenwich Village, most of the time in solitary confinement when they're not being hauled out for questioning or secret judicial hearings.

Not that it's anything new to have suspected terrorists at 201 Varick. For years it's been the detention center of choice for people considered too dangerous to release by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In many cases these "unremoveable detainees" can't be deported back to their original countries because the country won't take them, and yet they've committed crimes in this country. If they've already served their prison time, they end up in a legal limbo that can stretch for months or years as they try to fight their way out. In other cases--such as the treasurer for a Palestinian rights organization--they haven't committed a crime and they've entered the country legally, but they've gotten themselves onto an "undesireable" list supplied by their home country--and the home country (usually Israel) doesn't want them returned.

If you're unlucky enough to be suspected of terrorism--or even knowing something about a terrorist--there are two ways now they can hold you indefinitely. One is to get you on an immigration violation, which can be something as simple as misspelling your name on a visa application. The other is to be held as a "material witness." At one time this meant you would be held until a grand jury could be convened, but now it just means you'll be held. Period.

The government is uncommonly secretive about where they choose to "detain" people. Before September 11 we know that the most serious political cases were held at 201 Varick. There's a second facility in Queens for the "cattle call" cases--mostly people who show up at JFK Airport seeking asylum--and it's been cited several times by religious and humanitarian organizations for breaking up families (often separating children from mothers) and not providing access to immigration lawyers, as well as being dirty, overcrowded and unsafe. Then there's yet a third class of prisoner--long-term detainees who pose no special threat--and those were usually sent to a facility just across the Hudson in Elizabeth, N.J.

But the old order may not apply anymore. One thing we know is that, three days after the attacks, at least eight men were being held in solitary confinement on the ninth floor of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, just a few blocks from Ground Zero. Chief federal judge Michael Mukasey, who put them there, was quoted by his secretary as saying their records might be "sealed forever," according to the Washington Post.

The creepy thing to me about 201 Varick is that I've seen buildings like this in other countries--in Moscow, in Istanbul, in Mexico City--but I had never before seen an unmarked urban detention center in the U.S. Grey stone walls, hidden entrances, tight-lipped officers--these places always have an aura of fear and foreboding about them, and I'm sure that's part of their appeal for a cop working a case involving a criminal suspect who doesn't want to talk.

In 1994, an Ethiopian Jew who had been held at 201 Varick for four years managed to organize a demonstration about the conditions in the place that was staged on the street outside. (He remained inside, of course.) Shortly thereafter, he was taken from his cell in the middle of the night and removed to another "Service Processing Center" (actually a World War II prisoner-of- war camp) in Florence, Ariz. An INS spokesman said the relocation was made "to accommodate his request for fresh air and outdoor recreation."

These are the kinds of stories every reporter has collected in the Third World. They're not the kinds of stories we expect in Greenwich Village.

Despite gag orders on every case, similar stories are trickling out about the latest roundup. A man who lives in Detroit is arrested in Chicago but jailed in a federal prison in Brooklyn. A prisoner is moved five times in three weeks and denied access to a phone. A Yemeni French teacher with an American wife is stopped when the wife reports to duty at her Army base in Tennessee. Their car is searched, and officers find box cutters and picture postcards of New York City--because they've packed moving boxes and just moved from New York. The woman is advised to seek a discharge from the Army, and the man is locked up without bond, mostly because of an affidavit from a man whose title is "Section Chief of International Terrorism Operations Section, Counter-Terrorism Division, FBI." (What judge is going to challenge that?)

The legal question to be decided in almost all of these cases is what the American courts have called "the most sacred monument of personal freedom." That would be, of course, the writ of habeas corpus.

Habeas corpus is a Latin phrase that means "You have the body of . . ." Once the writ is filed--according to the most ancient principles of British and American law--the government must either release that body or show why that body is being held. In the 19th century, Congress passed something called the Chinese Exclusion Act, which allowed the Collector of Customs at any port of entry to refuse to admit Chinese to the country for whatever reason he deemed necessary. The Supreme Court held the act invalid and said that "any human being, no matter what his race or color," was entitled to habeas corpus.

Since then the Congress has written into every immigration act--in 1891, in 1952, in 1961 and especially in 1996--language that says a foreign national is not entitled to court review of his immigration case. And every time the courts have said that, while foreigners might not have the same rights as Americans, they can't be "deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." As recently as August of 1997, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said that Janet Reno's interpretation of immigration laws--she believed that no court had the power to review her decisions--was not valid for a simple reason: "The primary historical use of the writ of habeas corpus was precisely against executive detention."

Executive detention is what the kings of medieval Europe did, and it's what we're doing. When you stroll by 201 Varick you can see what it looks like, and it doesn't make me feel safe.