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Guantanamo Bay: Stories From Inside the World's Most Infamous Jail

What it's like at the detention center where over 100 prisoners are on hunger strike

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Michelle Shephard/Toronto Star via Getty Images
June 17, 2013 1:00 PM ET

Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-Ray – once the center of the newly designated Global War On Terror – is all weeds and decaying wood shacks now. Between opening in January 2002 and closing four months later, the camp housed as many as 300 detainees; images from that time, with orange-jumpsuited prisoners kneeling in outdoor cages fenced in by barbed wire, are still what many people picture when they think of Guantanamo, although the detainees were moved to another site on the island long ago.

Several journalists who came to Guantanamo to cover pre-trial hearings this month were recently given a tour of the long-abandoned facility. "Those are the pipes for urination," said our tour guide from the Pentagon's Press Affairs Office, pointing at a metal tube jutting out from along one cage wall. The chain-link cages where detainees were held measure eight feet on each side, according to a document provided by the press office. "Gurneys were used to transport detainees," says the document, marked "Camp X-Ray Notes." "It was easier to strap and wheel them than to fight them every step."

The U.S. is currently holding 166 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 86 of whom remain here despite having been cleared for transfer. But journalists are severely limited in what they can learn about the day-to-day realities of the prison as it operates today. Most of the detainees are in facilities known as Camps 5 and 6, which are modeled after U.S. federal prisons; another facility, Camp 7, holds so-called high-value detainees, and is completely secret. We were not allowed to tour any of the current detention centers – not because journalists are barred outright (they're not) but because all visits must be scheduled on weeks when military trials aren't happening. "We're booked up until mid-fall and possibly beyond," says Pentagon spokesperson Jeff Pool.

One thing we do know: Since early February, a growing number of Guantanamo prisoners have been on hunger strike to protest their treatment here. As of Monday, 104 detainees in Camps 5 and 6 were on strike, 44 were being force-fed through tubes and two were hospitalized. "Most detainees on hunger strike who are designated for enteral feed go compliantly," says Guantanamo spokesperson Captain Robert Durand. "Some detainees protest by laying down, and some resist actively. In all cases, the minimum amount of force is needed to safely restrain the detainee."

Most of the detainees in Camps 5 and 6 are confined to individual cells for around 22 hours each day, in conditions that Pardiss Kebriaei, a lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents several hunger strikers, refers to as solitary confinement. (Durand disputes this description, noting that detainees "can and do communicate with other detainees on their cell block via open access ports in their doors.") Recreation time in Camp 6 is two hours outside – "in a caged pen, alone, without enough room to do more than pace," says Kebriaei. She says detainees' lives are a "mind-numbing routine." According to her notes, a client in Camp 5, Mohammed Al Hamiri, told her, "I sit in my cell, I pray, I sleep. When it's time to walk outside, I get shackled and shuffled out, where I still can't do more than sit because I don't have the energy to move and it is hot . . . So I sit for as long as I can, and then they take me back to my cell. I resume my posture of sitting until it is time to be force-fed. I come back and clean myself if I've bled because of the tubes. The next day, the same thing. This is the program." Durand, the Pentagon spokesperson, says detainees in both camps get at least two hours of time outdoors per day.

Defense lawyers say the official force-feeding count can be misleading, since some detainees feel they are being coerced to continue eating even if they are not being physically force-fed. Attorney Cori Crider, from the international nonprofit Reprieve, provided notes from a May 30th phone call with her client Abu Wael Dihab. "For several days, I haven't been able to leave the cell for feeding," he said. "I have taken the Ensure inside my cell and drink it instead." Dihab says that he drinks the Ensure to avoid being forcibly extracted from his cell for tube feeding, adding that he feels "intimidated into drinking." 

In late April, 40 Navy medical professionals were added to the base's force. Durand says that "the additional medical force are fully qualified to perform their required duties and received appropriate refresher training as needed." But another of Crider's clients, Ahmed Belbacha, told her that some of Guantanamo's new medical staff have been affected by the force-feeding procedures. "One of the new nurses, I think she was maybe 40 years old, fed me for the first time the other day," said Belbacha, who weighs less than 120 pounds, according to notes provided by Crider. "Her hands were shaking as she did it . . . So I asked her: 'Is this your first time to force-feed someone?' She said 'Yes, it is.'" Crider also quotes Belbacha as saying: "Some guards tell me: 'I could never take what you are going through.'"

This week, the trial of several accused 9/11 conspirators is continuing in military court. The five defendants in that case are held in the secretive Camp 7, along with the other high-value detainees. Commander Walter Ruiz, who represents 9/11 defendant Mustafa al-Hawsawi, says that his client and the others held in Camp 7 know about the hunger strike. Though no one in that camp is currently designated as a hunger striker, he says his client often refuses meals as a form of protest. No reporters have ever been allowed in Camp 7.

Where will the so-called high-value detainees be in another 10 years – and what about the rest of Guantanamo's prisoners? Will they still be there, or will they be long gone, their cell blocks empty and sterile? For all we know, these facilities will be ghost towns like Camp X-Ray has become, with journalists walking through the prison corridors, taking photos and listening to a tour guide saying, "This is where the detainees used to have tubes snaked up their noses." If we're given an official document marked "Camp 5, 6 and 7 Notes" in 2023, will we find ourselves shocked by what we read?

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