Guantánamo Notebook: Glimpses of detainee living under lockdown

The flags of Cuba and the United States flank the door inside a meeting room for U.S. and Cuban military officials at the Northeast Gate at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The flags of Cuba and the United States flank the door inside a meeting room for U.S. and Cuban military officials at the Northeast Gate at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Reporting at Guantánamo is never easy. But three days at the prison compound last week, where fewer than 40 of the 154 captives were still on hunger strike, yielded guarded glances and few facts. It was, however, a glimpse of life at the prison’s maximum-security lockup, where hunger strikers are kept in solitary cells and a meal is offered in a Styrofoam container with a knock on a steel door.

One or two detainees declined lunch one day, but another accepted the container before troops hustled reporters from mealtime on Alpha Block.

Reporters had to specifically ask to see a restraint chair and hear about tube-feedings, a presentation that was once a fixture on any media visit.

And Army officers minding the military escorts routinely outnumbered the soldiers chaperoning reporters on carefully scripted stops. At one point, an edgy Army lieutenant shut down a random question on captives who won’t eat as straying too close to information contained on a secret body-mass index chart, which nobody had mentioned.

Other snapshots from a reporter’s notebook:

• Calming K-9: Stress is a constant concern among the 2,100-strong U.S. military and civilian staff members who come and go from this outpost on mostly nine-month rotations. So a U.S. Navy mental health team — whose staff members are themselves temporary — has a 60-pound therapy dog three times weekly at their counseling office that treats U.S. soldiers.

Troops can play with Titan, a boxer, or sit in one of two $2,495 reclining massage chairs in a break from prison duties while awaiting an appointment with a mental health expert.

Fear of the detainees and danger on the blocks don’t figure high as emotional stress triggers, according to an anonymous Navy commander whose job is clinical psychologist. Separation from family, job scrutiny from military commanders and visiting media members rank higher, he said.

• Waste war: The Army officer in charge (OIC) of the maximum security prison couldn’t remember the last time a captive splashed a soldier with a homemade concoction of bodily waste. It was once a popular pastime for Camp 5 prisoners under lockdown trying to make life miserable for teen and 20-something Army guards inside the OIC’s prison.

The prison spokesman, Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, chimed in during a briefing and called it a mostly daily occurrence. The Camp 5 prison commander contradicted him on the spot, saying the last episode was perhaps weeks ago.

Under new rules, reporters can show the faces and disclose the names of just three of the 1,800 or so troops assigned to the prison. Filostrat, as spokesman, is one of those who can be identified in this article, but the Army captain who contradicted him cannot.

• Food fight: With the military gagged on hunger-strike numbers since December, a reporting trip is now one rare way to gauge the protest that the military itself acknowledged last year swept up more than 100 prisoners.

One official said 10 to 15 captives are on hunger strike any given day. One medical officer said 99 percent of those who do get tube-fed no longer fight the process. And a sailor who handles tube feedings said those who don’t resist are called “VIP feeders.” They’re allowed to sit in a recliner with just one ankle shackled to the floor and watch a video — with a tube inserted up their nose and into their stomach to deliver a daily dose of a nutritional supplement.

With a ratio of about one medic for each detainee, Navy health providers are visible patrolling the maximum-security wing where the hunger strikers are kept. But the restraint chairs themselves are hidden away, and reporters have to know to ask to see one and to get a description of how the tube-feedings are done.

• Shelf life: At the detainee library, the only people who browse the stacks are visiting journalists. A first-time visitor excitedly spotted a Tin Tin book on a shelf in a musty storage room. Nearby, the anonymous officer in charge of detainee intellectual stimulation programs said the U.S. military has stopped buying books for the collection of more than 10,000 titles but is still accepting donations from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The officer, an Army 1st lieutenant, pleaded ignorance on popular books, videos or movies in the prison, the place where a contract librarian who was actually privy to the process once described Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a hit.

Instead, the officer assigned to answer reporters’ questions volunteered that commanders were considering reviving horticulture classes at the prison whose security doctrine requires a captive have an ankle shackled to the floor at class, Army guards nearby.

• Kilroy strikes: The captive who shouted at CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl in 60 Minutes’ special-access visit last year made his presence known again during a recent media visit.

Reporters shown an empty portion of the maximum-security lockup could plainly see a sketch on the floor showing “Kilroy,” the peering, long-nosed graffiti character made popular on walls across Europe in World War II. The sketch included the word “Justice,” the date Feb. 4, 2014, number 239 and the initials S.A.

Prisoner 239, Shaker Aamer, sometimes signs his letters with a Kilroy sketch, too, according to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. Stafford Smith is with Reprieve, a legal defense group in London where Aamer’s wife and children live.

• Afterword: Out at the fence line separating this U.S. Navy outpost from sovereign Cuban soil, some Marines set a conference table for 15 people this week. Cuban and U.S. flags flanked the door for the monthly meeting between Cuba’s Frontier Brigade commander, a general, and the base commander, Navy Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton. The two sides have been holding such meetings since the ’90s to avoid misunderstandings along the minefield. It was the United States’ turn to host on their side of the Northeast Gate, and the Americans were serving coffee and snacks for the one- to two-hour meeting.

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