When President Obama came into office, he promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for good. In the years since, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made that difficult. Congress has barred the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the continental U.S. and has made it difficult to send the suspected terrorists to third countries. That may be why the prison is beginning to feel permanent.
I have reported on prisons for years, but Guantanamo felt different. In regular prisons, I have had some sort of contact with the inmates, even if it was distant. I could see them and hear them and smell them. And they could do the same with me. But in Guantanamo, the prisoners are behind smoky, one-way glass. It is like a terrorist museum.
The officer in charge at Camp VI is a small man with jet-black hair and a white smile. He informs us that Camp VI is the compliant camp at Gitmo. This is where about 85 percent of the 171 detainees still on the island are housed. The prisoners are allowed to live here communally. There are block leaders and cell doors are open. We are allowed to watch them go about their day from behind dark, one-way glass. They don’t know we’re there. It’s like a silent movie. You see the actors, but you can’t hear them.
“There are 22 cells in the populated blocks,” says the officer. Military personnel who deal with detainees don’t have their names on their uniforms; instead they have velcro tags on their chests with their titles. This one says “Officer in Charge.” He gives us the tour. “One of the cells is a pantry. They have a refrigerator and a microwave and their non-perishable items. And another cell is used as a library. That’s where they keep their Korans and reading materials.”
The officers put tape over the LED lights on our cameras and tape recorders so the detainees behind the glass won’t know we are there. We can just hear muffled sounds from inside, so you end up adding a mental soundtrack as bearded men in prison garb climb stairs, do laundry and move in and out of their cells. They go about their lives while we watch. There are 46-inch flat-screen televisions on the wall. They also have Nintendo, and even enrichment classes.
“Monday through Friday we give classes,” the officer says, standing in the common area of an empty block. “Arabic to English, Pashto to English, basic life skills, computer, computer typing and time management.” He tallies the offerings on his fingers. Time management classes are a little different at Gitmo. Prisoners are taught to fill up their days with activities so they don’t go crazy. There are iron rings embedded in the concrete floor under the tables. It is where ankle shackles are attached during class, the officer says.
“They are able to do things that any other human would do,” says the officer. “Watch television, listen to the radio, of course any other human within the compound of a detention camp.”
If these humans disobey a guard or break a camp rule, they move to a tougher facility: Camp V. That is the base’s 100-bed maximum detention facility. The officer in charge of this camp is tall and friendly looking. When he speaks, there is a hint of a southern accent. He asks if we take photographs of him that we take them from the neck down.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen, I will try to speak up.” He sounds like a docent. He tells us that Camp V was cast in the U.S., put on a barge and floated down to Cuba. It was reassembled like a Lego project. He said it was modeled after a state penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., The population in Camp V changes; they have 100 cells but on any given day there are only about 20-30 detainees there.
“If detainees break one of the camp rules, to include assaulting the guard force with urine and feces, they are brought over here to Camp V to serve out their discipline time,” the officer explains, leading us into the prison. Prisoners can get 20 days in Camp V for flinging their bodily fluids at a guard. I look up at the white soundproof ceiling. There are still brown splatters that haven’t been cleaned up from past attempts.
A typical cell is 95 square feet. There is a thin window with natural light. A built-in bunk and besides that, no furniture. Just the essentials, like a toilet-sink-water-fountain combination that is hung from the wall. “It is very common to see this in any facility in the United States,” the officer tells us. “It is built to be indestructible; the detainees can’t damage it in any way.”
Detainees who follow orders have a 2-inch mattress and up to 8 books from the detainee library. If they misbehave, the mattresses get thinner and they get fewer books. We ask about the detainees, the kinds of offenses that land them in Camp V and whether they ever respond with hunger strikes. One of the press handlers jumps in before he can answer. Apparently we’re out of time.