August 8, 2012

Will Smith's ‘Fresh Prince’ pleases Guantánamo prisoners

Harry Potter books used to be in demand at the detention center. Now they want videos of Will Smith as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air -- the young man whose life "got flipped, turned upside-down."

Harry Potter books are passé among the prisoners. The adventures of the boy wizard have been supplanted by early episodes of Will Smith’s 1990s TV comedy, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as a popular way to pass time among the 168 captives now in their second decade of U.S. detention.

“I just ordered all six seasons,” says librarian Milton, a Defense Department contractor who gives only his first name to visiting journalists.

He offered no explanation for the sudden popularity of the half-hour sit-com about an inner-city Philadelphia kid who moves in with his affluent cousins in California beyond the observation that comedy is widely popular among requested items from the detention center’s 28,000 book and video library.

Overall, he said, there’s been a slowdown in circulation as many of the captives passing their 11th Ramadan in detention engage in other pursuits — praying, eating and talking together between dusk and dawn in their communal areas. But even before this holy month, demand for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series had dwindled.

The stories about Harry Potter now sit unborrowed on the shelves of the library, an air-conditioned trailer where contractors examine and assemble material for distribution in the prison camps. “They’re over that; it’s been more than a year,” the librarian said in an interview Tuesday.

A civilian, Milton maintains the multilingual collection of books that mostly circulate in Arabic, Pashto, English and French that reach the four lock-ups here — two the media are allowed to visit and the two that are strictly off-limits to visiting journalists.

But the librarian leaves it to the members of the uniformed military to distribute the books, magazines and video material on the cell blocks.

Instead he detects trends by demand and noted that before surging interest in Fresh Prince — the show that first aired Sept. 10, 1990 — a Bill Cosby series also had a period of popularity.

Cooperative captives, who make up the majority of the prisoners, can watch the show communally in their medium security lock-ups, pretty much around the clock. They're in cell blocks of up to 20 men equipped with a flat-screen television bolted to the wall inside a plexiglass box.

A maximum security captive, who represents about 15 percent of the population, can watch the show alone for perhaps an hour or two a day. He gets a special solo cell, shown to journalists on a Ramadan visit this week, that lets him watch from a recliner, with one ankle shackled to a bolt on the floor.

Commanders consider activities — like TV, books, art classes and outdoor recreation like soccer — to be key to keeping the captives distracted, and reducing friction with the guard force.

The detainees who were captured around the world in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are apparently using the material to hone their English, favoring novels that feature side-by-side translation. In addition, Milton said, he has ordered 10 copies of the Oxford English Dictionary, one each for nearly every cellblock.

Also, two hardcover sets of the popular, postapocalyptic Hunger Games trilogy are in circulation in the detention center this Ramadan, Army Cpt. Jennifer Palmeri said Thursday, in response to a Miami Herald query. All the versions are in English, she said.

In addition, one captive has been furnished with an audio version of Suzanne Collins' three books -- The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay." Palmeri, a public affairs officer, would not elaborate.

But an attorney at the New York Center for Constitutional Rights solved the puzzle on Friday. The law firm that defends Guantánamo detainees sent the audio trilogy to the library for Algerian captive Djamel Ameziane, 45, a long-held, English-speaking captive, said attorney Wells Dixon.

Ameziane lived in Canada and Austria before his capture in Pakistan in 2001, and was long ago cleared for release. Lawyers have been seeking a third country to resettle him, as a refugee. "He read 'Twilight,' too," Dixon said, "but wasn't a huge fan."

Past librarians have reported interest in Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope, and an attorney advised that one convict served out his sentence reading George W. Bush’s Decision Points.

Two books that have yet to make it to the collection tell the stories of the capture and interrogations of some of Guantánamo’s best known prisoners — former FBI agent Ali Soufan’s Black Banners and former CIA agent Jose Rodriguez’s defense of water boarding and other controversial tactics, Hard Measures.

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Carol Rosenberg


Carol Rosenberg reports on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the place, policy, people, war court.

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