The military has decided that art made by wartime captives is U.S. government property and has stopped releases of security-screened prisoner art to the public. One attorney says the U.S. military intends to burn cellblock art.
The new source of tension in the 41-captive prison is stirring a fundamental question: Who owns art? The state or the artist?
U.S. military officials declined to explain what caused them to abandon the years-long practice of releasing detainee art after inspection by prison workers schooled in studying material for secret messages under the rubric of Operational Security.
But an ongoing exhibit at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice featuring paintings and other works by current and former captives — which garnered international press coverage — apparently caught the attention of the Department of Defense. Online, the exhibition called “Ode to the Sea,” offered an email address for people “interested in purchasing art from these artists.”
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A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, said Wednesday that all Guantánamo detainee art is “property of the U.S. government” and “questions remain on where the money for the sales was going.”
At the prison, Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos said in a statement that “transfers of detainee made artwork have been suspended pending a policy review.”
Lawyers for the captives discovered the change in recent visits when troops at the 1,500-staff prison inexplicably stopped returning art that had been submitted for inspection and release. Then, according to two attorneys who represent several of the last 41 war-on-terror detainees, a commander told general population captives that they would no longer be allowed to give it away.
Attorney Ramzi Kassem said one captive was told “art would not be allowed out of the prison.” Now, if a captive gets to leave Guantánamo “their art would not even be allowed out with them and would be incinerated instead.”
Attorney Beth Jacob said a different client told her by telephone from the prison that “the colonel” announced that “they could continue to make art. But the number of pieces each could have would be limited, and excess ones would be discarded.”
Not only were the captives no longer to give their lawyers works of art as gifts, but the prison would no longer let the International Red Cross receive artwork for their families, the detainee told Jacob. According to that account, the colonel told captives the change was at the direction of someone not at Guantánamo. An ICRC spokesman had no comment, and invoked the confidential nature of the humanitarian organization’s contacts with the U.S. administration.
In contrast, Federal Bureau of Prisons policy lets its inmates mail “arts and hobbycraft” to family, give them to certain visitors and sometimes display it in public space, if it meets the warden’s standard of taste.
At Guantánamo, art classes were among the first programs offered to the captives in the later years of the Bush administration as commanders explored ways to distract detainees who had spent years in single-cell lockups from getting into clashes with the guards. Students would be shackled to the floor by an ankle inside a cellblock in Camp 6 and draw still-life displays or copy a picture set up by an Arabic linguist tasked to teach art.
Commanders called it the prison’s most popular, best attended program and would display examples, copies of original art, in a prison storage facility for books. Some showed seascapes and scenes from the home countries of the captives because, their attorneys said, the detainees knew it would be forbidden to show life at Guantánamo.
Supplies became more bountiful. Captives at times were allowed to create art on the communal cellblocks, and drew their inspiration from elsewhere. At the John Jay exhibit, two different detainees had paintings of the Titanic. The detention center had permitted prisoners to watch the 1997 disaster epic whose theme song is “My Heart Will Go On.”
One particularly ingenious Yemeni, forever prisoner Moath al Alwi, 40, used castoff cardboard and other found objects to craft increasingly large models of ships he’d only seen in books. The first time he met Jacob, he presented her with a replica gondola.
Kassem, a professor at City University of New York School of Law whose legal clinic represents many Guantánamo prisoners, said all the artwork that has come out of the prison “so far has gone through rigorous censorship and contraband review.”
The prison made an X-ray of Alwi’s model ships, Kassem said, before allowing them to leave the island.
The Pentagon’s Sakrisson suggested the art was not the captives’ to give away.
“Items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government,” he said in a statement. “The appropriate disposition of this property has been clarified with our staff at the detention facility and will be accounted for according to applicable local procedures in the future.”
Until asked by the Miami Herald, Jacob said she hadn’t heard of the possibility that somebody at the Pentagon was alarmed to discover the detainee art was for sale. One former captive, now resettled in Oman, wanted his artwork sold so proceeds could go to his ailing mother in Yemen for costly medicine, she said.
Leanos would neither confirm nor deny the prison’s plans to burn the art. Nor would she say how many works of art a captive could keep and how many he would have to designate for destruction.
Meantime, “art classes continue to be held each week and detainees have the opportunity to attend,” the prison spokeswoman said.
The art program had been such a point of pride at the prison that instructors posted copies of the work on the walls of a library storage facility, and journalists being escorted through the prison were encouraged to photograph it.
Two years ago, the prison’s now-defunct newsletter, The Wire, showed an Army officer admiring copies of the “vibrant paintings.”
The practice of releasing art from Guantánamo had become so common that prison staff recently printed a form for attorneys to attach to have each work of art reviewed and assigned each piece a tracking number for the clearance process.
Jacob, who has represented eight Guantánamo detainees, four now released, said her clients had been using art as a diversion for some time, and had been giving her pieces for years — sometimes as gifts and in other instances to safeguard for fear that the prison would not.
In a military raid on the prison in 2013, as a hunger strike spread to about 100 of the then 166 captives, soldiers seized the detainees’ artwork and legal documents from their cells. The legal documents were eventually returned, Jacob said, but the detainees never saw that art again.
“What’s next?,” asked detainee attorney David Remes. “Are they going to prohibit detainees from sending poignant letters to their families because someone might display them in an exposition?”
What does the Federal Bureau of Prisons do?
For inmates in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has an Art and Hobbycraft policy that permits prisoners to give away their art to authorized visitors, the number is to be determined by the warden; to mail artwork to relatives or certain approved visitors at the inmate’s expense; and in some instances to sell them through a hobbycraft sales program with prices set by a prison committee.
“Use of hobbycraft facilities is a privilege that the warden or staff delegated that authority may grant or deny,” the policy says. “Hobbycraft items must be removed from the living area when completed unless they are approved as personal property.”
It adds that the warden “may restrict, for reasons of security and housekeeping, the size and quantity of all products made in the art and hobbycraft program. Paintings mailed out of the institution must conform to both institution guidelines and postal regulations.”
And in some instances, the prison can play art critic. “If an inmate's art work or hobbycraft is on public display, the warden may restrict the content of the work in accordance with community standards of decency.”
To reduce fire hazards artwork not given or mailed away or sold within 30 days of completion can be declared “contraband.” It does not say how the prison will dispose of the contraband.