It’s edging toward dawn on a Ramadan morning at a communal prison building, and one by one detainees inside a cellblock clad in a a jumble of white, beige and brown uniforms are brushing their teeth, getting ready for the daylong fast and to settle in for a day’s sleep.
Yes, a day’s sleep.
The military has upended much of its so-called “battle rhythm” of the day for this, the captives’ 14th Ramadan at this remote base and the first here for their U.S. Army guards. Lockdown, the time when each war-on-terror captive is locked in his cell for a guard sweep, usually happens from 2 to 4 a.m. Now it happens between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.
The rhythm of life — largely turned upside down — resembles earlier Ramadans here.
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Art classes are still offered by day, but attendance dipped. Lawyers still can arrange daytime, weekday visits, but few do. The cellblocks are abuzz with activity at night: Between long periods of prayer, captives click through free satellite TV in search of news or sheiks delivering sermons. Some still kick around a soccer ball — late at night or before dawn when their bellies are full and the searing summertime temperatures dip. Hunger strikers are tube fed after dark, and most medicine is delivered at night, too, in consideration of the daylight hours fast of the Muslim faithful.
Meals are delivered by dusk for breaking the fast. But this year, inexplicably, there’s no lamb along with the traditional dates and baklava in the nightly iftar meal, something kitchen staff would highlight in past years as proof of their cultural sensitivity. The prison’s cultural adviser blames “logistics” for the lack of lamb on the base which each week gets first-run movies on flights from Florida. Menus are no longer discussed.
Still, staff say the mood among the 116 captives is mostly mellow, bolstered by the pre-Ramadan release June 13 of six long-cleared Yemeni captives to Oman. Their departure raised to 33 the number men transferred since last Ramadan.
“They’re always complying during Ramadan,” says the prison commander’s cultural adviser, a Muslim American who can be identified here only as Zak. “Every year they hope it’s their last Ramadan here.”
At Guantánamo, the holy month of fasting and reflection has started for years with the commander of the guard force issuing the “Ramadan pardon.”
Belligerent detainees who have racked up hundreds of disciplinary days for hurling excrement or invectives or trying to kick their guards get a clean slate that presumes them cooperative and eligible to live in communal cellblocks. The exceptions are hunger strikers the military confines to solo cells for what it calls health and safety reasons, even those deemed “highly compliant.”
No one will say how many hunger strikers there are because there’s a military gag rule. But they do provide a different metric: The day before Army Col. David Heath’s pardon, 12 of the 116 were on disciplinary status, considered “noncompliant.” By the 19th day of Ramadan four had broken enough rules to be back in disciplinary status.
One detainee, he’s not identified, had more than 1,500 disciplinary days, according to the commander of Camp 5, an Army captain. Captives lose privileges on disciplinary days. His Ramadan slate was clean for less than 24 hours, according to several interviews with commanders.
The captive refused to leave a recreation yard and a team of soldiers had to force him. Nineteen days later that “noncompliant detainee” had accumulated 273 disciplinary days — meaning that unless he’s transferred out, he can’t go to classes, get more than two books at a time, or eat and pray in the same space as others until sometime after April Fool’s Day.
But on the 20th day of Ramadan, 112 of the captives were considered to be behaving — a stark contrast to remarks a week earlier by the Southern Command’s Marine Gen. John F. Kelly that Guantánamo’s captives are “occasionally compliant but most often defiant and violent” and “among the most hateful and violent men on the planet.”
“The pardon actually worked for some detainees,” says the Army captain in charge of Camp 5, a veteran of the 2003 Iraq invasion. “Aside from these four, it’s been very, very quiet. It’s going very well.”
Three brief, choreographed visits to the main lockups for about 100 of the captives seemed to support the commanders’ commentary that all is calm behind the razor wire. At Camp 6, where up to 20 captives live communally, guards now watch each block through one-way glass rather than from an enclosure on the cellblock.
Even the one disruption reporters hear, after five captives in single-cell, maximum-security detention realize there are visitors, is tame by comparison to audio recordings that have emerged from the detention center in earlier years.
“We don’t have any rights,” a captive called out. “And we haven’t done any crime. Where is the American freedom?”
Other metrics seem to support the impression of little strife.
A senior Army officer who’s forbidden to give out precise figures says fewer than 10 hunger strikers require tube-feedings.
At the psych ward, a Navy mental health specialist says in the prior week there had been just one “suicidal ideation,” an expression of a desire to die. At least one detainee was an inpatient at the psych ward, called the Behaviorial Health Unit, a place guards across the years have described as a destination for detainees who want a timeout from the other captives.
An unnamed Navy officer who runs the mental health program offers that instability in Yemen is a major mental-health stressor. About 70 of the captives are Yemeni, and they see their nation imploding on television, and get calls and letters from family describing the upheaval. “We spend a lot of counseling time dealing with that,” the medical professional said.
The detainees “seem to be enjoying Ramadan,” says Health, calling the camps overwhelmingly “quiet and compliant. They are up most the night and we adjust our schedules” with most medicine and meals distributed at night, including a midnight snack and early morning pre-dawn meal. “There’s more prayers, there’s communal prayer.”
Then Heath offered a “success story.”
A month before Ramadan, a well-behaved captive in the communal lockup asked a Navy medical staffer for one-on-one time with a troublemaker who had racked up disciplinary days in the maximum-security prison. They are friends of sort, as Heath describes it, “a big brother type of thing.”
So Heath approved. The two men are moved to the psych ward for 10 days. They were locked in separate cells but spent time together in a recreation yard, essentially a cage, got counseling and based on the compliant “big brother’s” say-so and observation and moved together back to the communal lockup.
So far, so good, Heath says.
Neither man’s identity has been made public. But officers at the prison know them. The misbehaving captive had refused to follow guards’ instructions daily, and was subjected to “daily FCEs,” Guantánamo lingo for when a team of soldiers tackles, shackles and forcibly moves a non-compliant captive.”He was a pretty non-compliant detainee and that mentorship really helped,” said the Camp 5 Army captain, who in civilian life is a corrections officer at a medium-security prison.
It’s a single success story, casting a spotlight on the kind of captive-captor cooperation that was more routine before the big hunger strike erupted in 2013. But it may be a harbinger of a return to an earlier era of coexistence. Heath says he hasn’t ruled adopting a similar buddy system for other chronic troublemakers in the future.
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