Guantanamo prisoners adjust to life under lockdown

04/29/2013 9:59 AM

04/29/2013 9:59 AM

Dozens of new personal DVD players for prisoners are stashed in a closet, a perk the military has now put on hold. The $744,000 soccer field is empty. The halal kitchen still cooks three meals a day for each prisoner, but guards throw most of the food away.

With nearly every one of the 166 Guantanamo prisoners now under lockdown – back in solitary existence after years of communal living – the military has reverted to a battle rhythm reminiscent of years past.

Pre-cleared captives awaiting political change are confined for long stretches in 8-by-12-foot cells, each man praying behind his own steel door, deciding for himself whether to eat a solitary meal.

Meanwhile, troops are back to managing the most intimate aspects of a detainee’s daily life: when he will be shackled and taken to a shower, when he’ll be shackled and taken to a recreation yard, when he’ll get to hear the call to prayer through a slot in the door rather than muffled through the prison’s walls.

And, for the 100 who are on a hunger strike, the military decides when to shackle each man into a restraint chair for tube feedings – an austere, exacting control of the lives of these men that the prison’s Muslim adviser warns will not stop the next suicide.

“They are not done yet, and they will not be done until there is more than one death,” said the Pentagon-paid adviser, who goes by Zak.

Zak has worked at the prison since 2005 and blames a dozen hard-core prisoners for manipulating the others to join the hunger strike that has engulfed most of the prison and is still growing.

The military acknowledges that two prisoners have attempted suicide since the strike began. Zak predicts the hard-liners will incite a vulnerable captive to die. The prisoners “have perfected their methods of committing suicide,” he said. “It’s not going to be obvious.”

Defense lawyer Carlos Warner disagrees. He argues that the hunger strikers are slowly trying to commit suicide in plain view.

“Suicide will happen because the men are hopeless,” he said, “not because of influence by other detainees.”

They’ve lost hope, he said, because “President Obama has no intention to close Guantanamo.”

For now, the camps careen from one crisis to another. Reporters got a glimpse of this at dawn recently when the words “code yellow” suddenly crackled through a guard’s radio inside Guantanamo’s maximum-security lockup.

An officer ordered reporters to evacuate. Somewhere inside the 124-cell prison, a captive “didn’t wake up” or “wasn’t showing enough movement” inside his cell, said the commander, an Army captain who would not identify herself.

So Alpha Block declared a medical emergency, something the Army captain said has occurred “very frequently” since she took charge in October. In September, a Yemeni prisoner was found dead in his cell of a drug overdose. The military called it a suicide.

This time, troops shackled that morning’s medical emergency to a board and whisked him to the camp clinic. A Navy nurse diagnosed him as feeling “dizzy or faint” and had him returned to his cell – all within 20 minutes, according to an account provided by the prison’s Army public affairs team.

The Pentagon introduced communal, POW-style detention when Guantanamo began housing suspected terrorists.

Defense Department contractors built the first barracks-style prison camp in 2004 as a pre-release lockup for some of the first of the 500 or so captives that were to be eventually sent home.

Once Obama was elected president, communal became the norm. Prison camp managers, Zak included, would boast that by letting captives pray together, eat together and study together, the Pentagon was both complying with the Geneva Conventions on how to treat war prisoners and reducing friction between men held for years and their guards, who pass through on roughly one-year rotations.

Even as Congress blocked its closing, communal Camp 6 became the showcase of calm co-existence: Guards watched from the outside, some in towers air conditioned for their comfort; prisoners got PlayStations, food pantries and permission to roam inside their expanding areas. The holy month of Ramadan passed peacefully, according to both sides, with the captives laying out festive meals at dusk for the prayers and feast that followed.

Whatever detente existed ended Jan. 2, around the time soldiers relieved sailors guarding the communal camp.

A captive started to climb a fence and a guard fired rubber pellets into the soccer field the Pentagon built. Then, on Feb. 6, guards undertook the most aggressive shakedown of the communal cells in years. The captives responded with protest: They launched the hunger strike, refused to shut themselves in their cells for two hours of nightly lockdown, and one by one obscured more than 100 cameras that had let guards peer in every cellblock corner.

On April 13, troops stormed Camp 6 to lock each captive alone inside a cell. Troops with shotguns fired rubber pellets and rubber bullets. Detainees wielded broom handles and other improvised weapons. Somebody whacked two guards’ helmeted heads, and a detainee bled on two other guards during a five-hour operation that injured five prisoners and put all but a few of Guantanamo’s captives on lockdown.

The commander of the guard force, Army Col. John Bogdan, described the February shakedown as tightening what is now seen as an era of permissiveness in the prison before Navy sailors turned over their cellblocks to Army guards.

Bogdan said he met with some captives and heard their requests for “any number of things” that he did not detail.

“None of them were considered,” he said, noting that such gestures would “reinforce bad behavior.” Ultimately, he said, they want to be released from Guantanamo, and that’s something he has no authority to do.

That was before the raid that locked everybody at the communal camp inside an individual cell, a single-cell style of confinement that hadn’t been seen by many captives for years.

To claims of collective punishment, Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison spokesman, offers a quote from Southcom’s commander, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly: “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever reward bad behavior.”

Because every camera within reach was covered in the communal cellblocks, the military says, every captive who was there is being punished. Bogdan would not predict when they might return to group meals and prayers; Zak said he hoped at least some would be together by Ramadan, which starts in early July.

In a section of Camp 5, now Guantanamo’s most populous, maximum-security prison, there still exists an unseen corner of communal confinement – about a dozen prisoners who can walk around the corridor unshackled, with the guards watching from outside.

Each man now has his own player to watch DVDs in his cell. None of those men is on a hunger strike, said Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, a prison camp spokesman.

An unscripted view of the block last week seemed to confirm this.

Just as eight men in Bravo Block were finishing up pre-dawn prayers inside their cells, a monitor in the command center showed a bearded captive pop something into a microwave oven. He waited perhaps 60 seconds, then carried that something away – a privilege no longer possible for the men in lockdown.

A meal arrives three times a day and is offered through a slot in a steel door, presenting a choice: eat it, or the guards will throw it away.

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