When a fiddle player and her band toured the prison camps at Guantánamo recently, guards told of a new devious and disturbing tactic confronting them.
A captive on a hunger strike had been jamming something foul up his nose to contaminate the pathway for medical staff who feed him a nutritional shake twice a day.
Political protest or mental illness?
The captive was jamming his own excrement up his nose. On the topic of bodily waste abuse, prison camp management “will not speculate on the motivations for this behavior,” said Navy Cmdr Tamsen Reese, who confirmed the account of country artist Natalie Stovall.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The guards see it as a tactic meant to demean those tasked with keeping the captive alive, wrote Stovall in a blog post. “It means the medic putting the tube up his nose and down his throat must clean out the feces first.’’ But Stovall wondered whether the prisoner was debasing himself as well.
Guantánamo guards have for years told visitors that their war on terror captives “weaponize” their body waste. They throw cups of urine and feces at troops in what soldiers and sailors call “a cocktail.”
But this latest tactic marks a new frontier at the remote prison camps the Pentagon set up nearly 10 years ago.
Still, the act of smearing feces is not unique to foreign captives accused of ties to al Qaeda and trying to torment their captors.
Earlier this month, guards put an Oregon county jail under lockdown and called in an emergency response team to pepper-spray an inmate who was refusing to eat, had covered himself with feces and refused to leave his cell and shower. He was removed for medical care.
In the late 1970s, hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners smeared their excrement on the walls and emptied chamber pots of urine under cell doors at the Long Kesh Prison in Belfast to protest their captivity and conditions.
The phenomenon is “generally regarded as a sign of mental illness or abject desperation or both,” says psychologist Craig Haney, whose expert testimony was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in last month’s 5-4 decision that ordered the California corrections system to downsize the population in its unsanitary, overcrowded state prisons.
“As bizarre and distasteful as it may seem,” he said, “they turn to one of the few things over which they have control — their feces.”
At Guantánamo, the behavior has a side-effect. The gut-wrenching odor of excrement has for weeks wafted through the air vents of Camp 5, the Pentagon’s state-of-the-art, 100-cell maximum-security prison, according to smell-witnesses. It amounts to a kind of collective punishment that assaults the senses of compliant captives and captors alike.
It got so bad last month that a U.S. soldier visiting Toronto-born convict Omar Khadr, convicted of killing another American soldier, filed a complaint with prison camp staff. Khadr, 24, is due for release later this year to serve up to seven more years in a Canadian jail after pleading guilty to the 2002 grenade killing of a commando in a firefight in Afghanistan.
Camp 5, where the Pentagon’s four war criminals are kept apart from the feces-smearing prisoners, is Guantánamo’s equivalent of a stateside SuperMax facility. Each captive is confined to a Spartan 8-by-12-foot cell behind a steel door with a slot big enough for troops to pass meals and books and for prisoners to shout in cellblock conversations.
“Because Camp 5 is a modern detention facility with centralized air conditioning, the odor emanating from the conduct of a few detainees is noticeable throughout the building, by both guards and detainees,” says Reese, the prison camps spokeswoman.
Reese confirmed the account of the country music artist who signs her blog entries, “Peace, love, fiddle” — and toured the prison camps while at Guantánamo to entertain the troops Memorial Day weekend. The commander said hunger strikers have stuck other items up their noses to frustrate forced-feeding — bread and toilet paper, for example. But using human waste, “has only recently been employed.”
She also noted that the phenomenon of body fluid abuse is an old one with detainees smearing “feces, urine, blood, semen and saliva, or combinations thereof, not only on themselves but on the walls and doors of their cells, or have pushed it under their cell doors.”
But Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says such behavior is more prevalent in solitary confinement and SuperMax-type settings where prisoners “are denied most or all forms of normal social contact.”
By policy, the military doesn’t clean up after the captives – unless they manage to push their filth out their cell door to the corridor. “Detainees are responsible for cleaning their own cells, and they do,” said Reese. “The guards will also clean the threshold when the detainee is out of his cell, on an as needed basis.”