In Depth

Life under lockdown at America’s hunger-striking prison camps

Dozens of brand-new personal DVD players for the 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 Guantánamo prisoners now under lockdown — back in solitary existence after years of communal living — the military has reverted to a battle rhythm reminiscent of the Bush administration.

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

Meantime, 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 100 hunger strikers, 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 advisor 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,” warns the Pentagon-paid advisor, 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 says. “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 says, “not because of influence by other detainees.”

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

Crisis management

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 Guantánamo’s maximum-security lockup.

An officer ordered the 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 provide even the first letter of her first name.

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 inside 20 minutes, according to an account provided by the prison’s Army public affairs team.

End of POW-style detention

The Pentagon introduced communal, POW-style detention while George W. Bush was still president.

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 the Bush White House would eventually send home.

Once Barack Obama was elected, communal became the norm. Prison camp managers, Zak included, would boast that by letting captives pray together, eat together, 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 closure, communal Camp 6 became the showcase of calm coexistence — 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 break-fast prayers and feast that followed.

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

A captive started to climb a fence and a guard fired rubber pellets into the sprawling soccer field the Pentagon built for $744,000. 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 Guantánamo captives on lockdown.

New troops follow ‘the book’

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.

For a one-named Afghan hunger striker named Obaidullah that means knocks on his cell door between 2 and 4 a.m., offering a shower, according to his lawyer, Marine Maj. Derek Poteet. Guards had yet to issue the man a bar of soap and toothbrush by his 10th day in lockdown, the lawyer said.

That account, according to Army Col. Greg Julian, could not possibly be true. Every captive gets basic issue items, said Julian, who works at Southern Command, the Pentagon’s South Florida headquarters that supervises the prison and U.S. military interests throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Obaidullah, in his 30s, is one of just a few hunger-striking prisoners to have a military defense lawyer. This week, the Marine said, the Afghan man was so weak and so withered that he presented a “a bag of bones” when he reached out with a handshake.

Bogdan told reporters that he has met with some captives, heard their requests for “any number of things” that he did not detail.

“None of them were considered,” he said, noting that gestures would “reinforce bad behavior.” Ultimately, he said, they want to be released from Guantánamo, 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 Obaidullah’s lawyer says the Afghan hadn’t seen since the Bush years.

The morning of April 13, Poteet said, Obaidullah was doing ritual washing in an inner recreation yard in anticipation of pre-dawn prayers when the guards arrived, throwing tear gas and firing something he could not identify. Obaidullah swears he did not resist, his lawyer said, and believes he is consigned to suffering a kind of collective punishment for the bad acts he attributes to some, not all.

Obaidullah told his lawyer Monday that he knew the troops who hold him “don’t have the authority to send me home. But they do have the authority to be nice.”

He pleaded, Poteet said, for “some basic human dignity and reasonableness.”

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. It starts in early July.

A few with limited freedom

In a section of Camp 5, now Guantánamo’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 happens to be a hunger striker, says 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 fajr 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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