Could the people at the Most Expensive Prison on Earth be pinching pennies?
Attorneys for the last 114 captives at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, say they have been increasingly providing their clients with everything from T-shirts and socks and shoes to shampoo and vitamins to fill a long-term, unexplained need at the war on terror prison.
Lawyers who have visited the prison as recently as this month say the captives’ U.S. military issue uniforms are faded, torn or tattered and their shoes have holes. In other instances, detainees tell their lawyers, personal hygiene supplies are cheap and simply don’t do the job.
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A case-in-point: When attorney Ramzi Kassem met detainee Shaker Aamer to share the news that the long-held Saudi prisoner was approved for transfer to Britain after Oct. 24, the captive was brought to their meeting in prison-issue canvas shoes held together by duct tape.
“Stuff’s just not getting replaced,” said attorney George Clarke who in late September spent about $300 on slip-on canvas shoes, plastic sandals, T-shirts and towels for his two detainee clients — both approved for repatriation, if the political situation improves in Yemen. “They say the stuff they get is crap. Or they’re not getting it.”
Recently, he said, the detention center staff has been more accepting of contributions from the attorneys, suggesting prison commanders are confronted with a cash crunch or have realized they can pass along costs of basics to the private sector.
At the prison, a spokesman declined to say whether the raggedy clothing reflected a new policy or budget cutbacks but dismissed a question on whether there was a supply issue. Detainee provisions “have not changed,” Navy Capt. Christopher Scholl said tersely by email.
The prison would not provide a list of what constitutes basic issue prisoner provisions these days. Nor would Scholl address a question about whether the quality of prison-issue items had degraded.
Any reports of shortages are baseless.
Navy Capt. Christopher Scholl, Guantánamo prison spokesman
To detain these guys for little or no reason for 14 years and not provide them with shoes is offensive.
Patricia Bronte, detainee attorney who bought her clients footwear
The International Committee of the Red Cross would not say whether delegates have raised the issue in confidential talks with the prison commander.
The Miami Herald spoke, separately, with 12 attorneys who have met captives in recent months and describe detainees showing up at legal meetings looking disheveled and needing replacement footwear or clothes. The attorneys say the appearance is noteworthy because through the years all but mentally ill captives have tried to tidy up for their legal meetings.
“They’re looking pretty threadbare,” attorney Cori Crider of the nonprofit Reprieve legal defense group said from the U.S. Navy base Tuesday after she bought shampoo and socks for one prisoner. “It’s an escalating complaint that people are being left in rags.”
The lawyers quote their clients as saying some supplies have disappeared entirely at the prison, which boasts Muslim sensitivity and humane treatment. Some just aren’t replaced frequently enough, they claim.
Into this vacuum attorneys who represent the detainees at no charge have for about nine months routinely spent hundreds of dollars on each trip to buy their clients basic provisions at the base commissary, the Navy Exchange, or NEX.
In March, Chicago attorney Patricia Bronte, a solo practitioner, spent $136.25 on shoes and Gold Toe socks for her two Yemeni clients. She left them with a prison lawyer, who got them to the clients after she left the base — something she knows because she got thank-you notes via the prison’s legal mail system.
$136.25 what 1 lawyer spent on shoes and socks for 2 Yemeni prisoners
“I have noticed that sometimes the client appears at the meetings with shoes that look pretty beaten up. So I went to the NEX and I bought shoes and socks.” Also $6.12 in toothbrushes and toothpaste, according to her commissary receipt.
“Understand, I’m not complaining. I don’t mind buying my clients shoes to improve their conditions,” she said. “It’s the gall of this country. To detain these guys for little or no reason for 14 years and not provide them with shoes is offensive.”
Ramadan provided an early sign of the prison’s cutbacks: Detainees reported through their lawyers that the prison no longer offered lamb during feast break-fasts — something the military cited in past years as proof of its cultural sensitivity. The prison cultural adviser blamed “logistics” for its disappearance.
Prison officials had already stopped spending taxpayers’ money on books, videos and electronic games for the detainee diversion program, according to media visits in the past year, leaving it to the Red Cross and lawyers to donate to the Detainee Library.
Kassem, the attorney, said his clients quoted guards and other prison staff as blaming budget cuts at the prison where the Pentagon maintains a 2,000-plus staff for 114 captives and has spent more than $5 billion.
“Sometimes it’s a problem of poor toiletries — soap that doesn’t lather, toothpaste that doesn’t froth, deodorant that doesn’t prevent body odor,” said Kassem, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law whose legal clinic represents five Guantánamo detainees. Captives he sees in the prison’s iconic orange prison uniform are wearing old, torn and much less orange jumpsuits, he said.
The prisoners are perplexed, Kassem said. “They’ve heard how much it costs per prisoner. They wonder, where’s all the money?”
“Somebody’s pinching pennies, it seems,” he said, describing the prison-issue footwear on Aamer, the next detainee to be released, as “Oliver Twist tattered” despite repeated pleas for a replacement pair.
“He needs a new pair of shoes to go home in,” Kassem said. “It would be too embarrassing for the United States to let him go home to the [United Kingdom] in those shoes.”
Oliver Twist tattered
Ramzi Kassem, describing detainee Shaker Aamer’s shoes
Attorneys say the detainees give different explanations for the personal hygiene requests. Some say the prison went generic recently and the quality degraded. Some of the more devout believe the prison-issue items contain non-halal ingredients forbidden by Islam. Others simply want something personal to break up the tedium of institutional life.
Over at the secret prison for former long-held CIA captives, Camp 7, the detainees are taking vitamin D furnished by defense attorneys Cheryl Bormann and Air Force Capt. Michael Schwartz.
Walid bin Attash spent years without exposure to sunlight in a so-called CIA black site before he got to Camp 7 in 2006. Now, he’s told his lawyers, his medical record shows a severe vitamin D deficiency. He asked his defense team for a halal version of the supplement, which the prison doesn’t provide. One attorney, who asked not to be identified, quoted a prison medical officer as telling detainees “there’s no money for that.”
So bin Attash’s lawyers ordered kosher vitamin D — no forbidden products in those gel caps — and gave it to the military staff attorney assigned to Camp 7. The prison’s medical officer has apparently doled them out to other former CIA black site captives because bin Attash needs a resupply sooner than a one-a-day distribution would require, Bormann said.
“We’ve been having to purchase vitamin D for our client,” said Bormann, a criminal defense attorney with death-penalty experience. “It’s crazy.” At a civilian prison, she said, the lawyers wouldn’t have to buy and furnish it. They’d go to a federal or state judge, who would order the prison to provide it.
Footwear and uniforms are a different issue. Lawyers report their clients showing up in faded, tattered and stained uniforms, demonstrating to them that the military is not replacing them. The same is true of the prison-issue black canvas shoes.
Lawyers willing to spend their own money on clients say that, in response, the detention center has been much more liberal in accepting donations, particularly those purchased at the commissary.
It works like this: The lawyer buys the goods at the place where everybody on base shops and hands the commissary shopping bag over to a deputy military lawyer on temporary duty at the prison’s legal office. Each bag contains goods intended for a single detainee, along with a slip that lists the intended prisoner’s detention number and what’s inside. The military lawyer hands the bag to the guard force, which vets the contents.
At the prison, spokesman Scholl said the prison’s legal division was using a longstanding process for accepting donated items.
One attorney who asked not to be identified said he bought about a dozen soccer balls at the base commissary over several days, and later heard from a detainee they got through as “a gift from Allah.”
Lists of purchases provided by more than a dozen attorneys include toothbrushes, toothpaste, bar soap, shampoo, deodorant, slip-on sandals that double as slippers, white socks, white T-shirts, towels, no-lace sneakers, canvas slip-on shoes, pillows, books, individual DVD players, video games and audio tapes. Those reached the clients after a guard inspection — as did tahini, ginger, allspice, mint oil, mint tea, ginger tea, Nesquik, olive oil, ground cloves, henna and almonds, around Ramadan.
Lawyers also said they have submitted other items that were rejected — notably black socks, hairbrushes, combs and aftershave (probably for its taboo alcohol content).
The prison’s common rule, according to several attorneys is, no duplicates. That means, a captive who gets a new bottle of shampoo must exchange it for the one in his cell.
Attorney Shane Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights schlepped 72 pounds of luggage on his last trip to Guantánamo — loaded with electronics, instant coffee, prayer caps and food for some of the prisoners he was seeing.
The lawyers can no longer share meals with the captives, he said, but the prison has been more tolerant of the attorneys providing certain day-to-day supplies. His clients ask for, and get, shampoo with a fragrance as a substitute for forbidden cologne. And everybody wants footwear, particularly single-strap, slide-on rubber or plastic sandals.
Kadidal sees it as a sign of a more benevolent Guantánamo leadership that recognizes the prison won’t be closing anytime soon. The military seems to be “trying to make the prison population more placid by mollifying them with stuff,” said Kadidal, who suspects the troops are trying “to make life a bit more livable” for the detainees who don’t see a way out — particularly “for the cleared people.”
Of the 114 detainees, currently 54 men are cleared to go once the State Department negotiates resettlement or repatriation agreements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Verbatim | Prison statement
“Provisions provided to detainees have not changed. Any reports of shortages are baseless. The JTF* is committed to ensuring detainees are kept in a safe, secure and humane environment. The physical and mental well-being of detainees is our primary responsibility, and their security is of vital importance to our mission.
“SJA*’s process for donated items is not new and has not changed.”
▪ Navy Capt. Christopher Scholl, public affairs officer
JTF: Joint Task Force Guantánamo, the prison; SJA: Staff Judge Advocate, the prison legal division