Guantánamo detention: How harsh is it?

President Obama must decide whether to embrace or change Bush's detention policies.

Mandel Ngan/reuters/Files
Camp 5: Guards at this part of the US prison camp in Cuba wear face shields to protect themselves from attack by detainees.
julie fallon / staff
Brennan Linsley/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
Camp 6: Many detainees here are kept in windowless cells 18-20 hours a day. To communicate with fellow prisoners, they must shout through steel doors. Officials say this doesn’t constitute isolation.

Military officials are vigorously defending their treatment of detainees at the controversial terror prison camp here, rejecting charges by the prisoners and their lawyers that conditions are harsh, illegal, and inhumane.

"There isn't anything we do here that I wouldn't be proud to show my mom or my kids," said Rear Adm. David Thomas, commander of the task force that runs the detention camp.

"The conditions of detention are safe and humane," he said in an interview.

His comments come amid an ongoing assessment of detainee conditions at Guantánamo recently ordered by President Obama.

Guantánamo officials and their critics are both waiting to see whether the Obama administration decides to embrace existing detainee policies enacted by the Bush administration or, instead, decides to adopt a more permissive approach favored by human rights groups.

Lawyers for detainees charge that their clients are being held in severe isolation with little opportunity for meaningful socialization.

They say some detainees live in constant fear of aggressive guards organized as quick strike teams. And they charge that the 40 detainees currently engaged in a hunger strike are being strapped – feet, legs, and head – to restraint chairs and left for excessive periods of time as part of military-ordered forced feedings.

"You could take any single complaint and make it seem trivial, but when you add all these things up and that becomes your existence day in and day out, that is what makes it unbearable," says David Remes, a Washington-based human rights lawyer who represents 11 detainees. He says one of his clients likened life as a detainee to "death by a thousand cuts."

The detention camp at Guantánamo is actually a collection of several different camps, each with different characteristics and security levels. The total detainee population is currently 242.

The Guantánamo detention camps exist in a maze of modular buildings that sprawl across a wide field behind a double line of high chain-link fences and coils of what seem thousands of miles of razor wire. All of it sits just above a jagged shoreline and the bright blue Caribbean Sea.

The prison is no Club Med

Although some people have jokingly called it Club Med for Al Qaeda, there is nothing about this place that suggests fun or relaxation. It is all about the hard business of incarceration.

From the military's perspective it is designed to keep America safe by preventing captured Al Qaeda fighters and supporters from returning to the battlefield. Human rights experts and lawyers for the detainees do not object to that mission. But they have strong objections to how it is being carried out.

They charge conditions of confinement are unnecessarily harsh, driving some detainees to the brink of insanity. They are urging the new administration to adopt a broad reading of international laws designed to protect military detainees during armed conflicts.

On Jan. 22, on his second day in office, Mr. Obama ordered the Guantánamo detention camp closed within a year. He also ordered the defense secretary to conduct an immediate review of conditions at the camps to ensure full compliance with "all applicable laws ... including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions."

The order says "any necessary corrections shall be implemented immediately thereafter."

Underscoring the importance of the presidential order, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked the Navy's second ranking officer, Adm. Patrick Walsh, the vice chief of naval operations, to lead a team to determine whether detainees are being treated humanely. That report is expected within days.

Camp Commander Thomas said the review team was granted "free and unfettered access" to the detention operation. He said he did not know what the report might say. "We're focused on taking care of these guys and will let the policy makers decide policy," says Cmdr. Pauline Storum, the camp spokeswoman.

The most criticized detention facilities at Guantánamo are Camps 5 and 6. Camp 5 was built on the design of a maximum security prison. The $16 million two-story concrete structure can house up to 100 prisoners. Each detainee lives alone in a 12- by 8-foot cell. The cell features a narrow window in the outer wall and another slit window in the door. The thick metal door also has an opening with its own door to allow guards to pass food trays into the cell.

Military officials say the maximum security features are necessary to safely handle what they call "very noncompliant detainees."

A Camp 5 officer noted: "These are your feces throwers, the guys who are going to assault you with saliva."

'Permanent lockdown'?

Lawyers with clients in Camp 5 say the camp resembles a maximum security prison in permanent lockdown. They say that forcing detainees to endure prolonged periods of isolation in their cells can trigger psychological deterioration that will guarantee even greater noncompliance in the future.

Adjacent to Camp 5 is Camp 6, a $36 million two-story concrete structure opened in 2006. The cells in Camp 6 are oriented inward, toward the center of the facility. There are no windows other than a small window in the steel door to permit guards to perform checks.

As at Camp 5, many detainees spend 18 to 20 hours every day alone in their cells. Lawyers say their clients are being kept under punishing conditions of isolation. They say such treatment is particularly inappropriate because their clients have never been convicted of a crime, and most detainees at Guantánamo have never been charged with a crime. They are being held because the military has designated them enemy combatants.

Isolation is a sensitive subject. It is banned in the Army Field Manual as a potential form of torture.

Limited communication

"To the extent that they can actually speak to someone, the military is trying to place every obstacle in their way to prevent that," says Ramzi Kassem, a Yale Law School lecturer and lawyer for several detainees. Mr. Kassem visited his clients at the detention camp last week.

"They may be able to communicate with one another by screaming under the solid metal door so maybe the guy in the cell across the walkway will hear them," he says. "But they are still in their cells 22 hours a day in conditions that are worse than what you would find in the supermax [federal] prison in Florence, Colo."

Military officials disagree. The current conditions do not amount to solitary confinement or isolation, they say. "Severe isolation is a complete fabrication," camp commander Thomas says. "It is easy [for the detainees] to communicate."

Detainees are permitted to talk with each other through their locked cell doors. In addition, if there are other detainees in the recreation area during their designated time for recreation, they can talk then, officials say. But lawyers say their clients are often alone in the recreation yard.

"They are not isolated," says the camp psychiatrist, who asked that she not be identified by name. "They can talk loudly, shout loudly to their neighbors next door."

She said that level of shouted communication is not possible at the supermax prison in Colorado. "There are no detainees I would consider isolated," she says. But she conceded: "That does not mean they could sit together [and talk]."

Prisoners shout their objections

Camp officials do not allow members of the media to speak with detainees. But during a tour of the Camp 5 recreation area, detainees noticed camp officials talking with two reporters who were taking notes.

One detainee began to shout. "Liar! Liar! Liar!" Another detainee on a wing on the other side of the recreation area joined in: "He is lying."

Within moments, at least eight bearded detainees were pressing their faces close to the thick glass in the narrow windows in their individual cells, shouting to the reporters. "He is lying. He is lying."

Soon a chant went up. "Liar. Liar. Liar."

The shouts continued until the reporters reentered the main building. Then the camp fell silent again.

The detention camp at Guantánamo is designed to confront detainees with a series of incentives and choices. They can comply with the rules and receive a few extra comfort items, longer recreation time, and the possibility of moving from a high security camp to a medium security camp.

In Camp 4, detainees live communally in bunk houses. They live together and eat together. There's a room open 20 hours a day with a satellite television tuned to a Saudi Arabian TV station. There are two movie rooms, and an open area where detainees can play soccer, volley ball, ping-pong, or basketball.

"This is the compliant camp," says Lt. Rick Baker, the officer in charge of Camp 4. "They don't want to leave this place [for another camp]," he says.

Perks for 'compliant' detainees

As he speaks, three detainees dressed in white sit and talk in the shade inside a fenced compound, while a fourth, jogs back and forth across the yard. When they see the reporters on a tour of their camp they do not start shouting. They simply continue their conversations and ignore the officials and reporters.

Nicholas Meyers of Minocqua, Wis., has been a guard in Camp 4 for four months. He says the demeanor of the camp is "generally upbeat."

"When I am interacting with a detainee I try to put myself in his situation and treat him like a man," says Petty Officer Meyers. "I think if I was held in a position such as them [at Camp 4], I think it is humane, fair."

Despite the incentive, not all detainees view compliance and cooperation as an option. Some are determined to continue to fight in whatever way they can. And that makes the job of the guards potentially dangerous.

"My goal is to make it as safe and humane as it can possibly be," says camp commander Thomas. "I'd have them all in Camp 4 if they would all comply with the camp rules."

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