The idea of incinerating artwork made by wartime captives at Guantánamo Bay has stirred such alarm that the U.S. military is now discussing keeping and cataloging detainee art rather than burning it.
Army Col. Lisa Garcia of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the 41-captive prison and its 1,500-member staff, said Tuesday that Southcom is recommending to the prison that the staff archive detainee artwork rather than discard it.
“We have no record of burning detainee artwork at any time in the past,” Garcia told the Miami Herald, “and we are not planning to start.”
A lawyer quoted a captive as saying that military officials at the prison in southeast Cuba announced earlier this month that artwork of detainees who leave the prison would be incinerated.
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For years the prison had permitted attorneys for the captives to take their clients’ art off the U.S. Navy base — after a security screening that, among other things, sought to analyze it for secret messages. In the instance of some model ships ingeniously made by a Yemeni, troops went so far as to make and study an X-ray of it. Some of the more than 700 captives who were resettled or repatriated were allowed to take some of their artwork with them.
But an ongoing exhibit at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice featuring paintings and other works by current and former captives — Ode to the Sea — caught the attention of the Pentagon because the exhibit’s website offered an email address for people “interested in purchasing art from these artists.”
Department of Defense officials “were not previously aware that detainee artwork was being sold to third parties,” and ordered the prison to stop releasing it, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson said. He called the artwork property of the U.S. government. He also said there was no effort underway to recover detainee art that had already left the base.
The prospect of burning art prompted comparisons of the United States to its enemies.
“Let’s see who can destroy works of art and culture faster, ISIS or @DeptofDefense at #Guantánamo,” long-serving detainee attorney J. Wells Dixon tweeted on Nov. 16, after the Miami Herald broke the news of the ban. “Next it will be burning books,” the attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights also tweeted. An online petition started by the curator of the John Jay exhibit — which as of Tuesday morning had 878 signatures — declared: “Burning art is something done by fascist and terrorist regimes — but not by the American people.”
Attorney Ramzi Kassem, whose clients include some of the prison’s most prolific artists, described the idea of archiving rather than destroying the works of art as a cynical move.
“They’re still going to redact the art out of existence. They’re just not going to burn it because that looks bad,” he told the Herald.
“But if no one gets to see the art, they might as well be incinerating it,” he added. “Guantánamo has always been about dehumanizing its prisoners and erasing them. This is only the latest example.”
In contrast, Federal Bureau of Prisons policy lets inmates mail “arts and hobbycraft” to family, give it to certain visitors and sometimes display it in public spaces, if it meets the warden’s standard of taste.
Tuesday, the four-decade-old National Coalition Against Censorship condemned the new policy as a “violation of the public’s right to access this work and thus fully participate in the political conversation around Guantanamo.” It called the work “documents of historical importance.”
Several other arts organizations, including PEN America, the College Art Association and the Media Freedom Foundation joined in the statement. It said the new Pentagon policy of withholding the art from public view “also violates the human rights of the detainees under international norms.”
“This baseless policy change uses art as a political football in an effort to prevent these works — and a deeper understanding of those who created them — from informing public discussion of the policies the U.S. government makes in its citizens’ names,” it said. “We condemn this attempt to obstruct the American public discourse essential to a democratic and open society.”
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 lockup, taunting or throwing filth at their guards. Students would be shackled to the floor by an ankle inside a cellblock and would 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 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.
Two different paintings on display at the John Jay exhibit showed the Titanic. A lawyer said the detention center had permitted prisoners to watch the 1997 disaster epic whose theme song is “My Heart Will Go On,” a source of inspiration for the captive artists.
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.
Before this month’s prohibition on releases, the lawyers’ practice of clearing works of art had become so common that Guantánamo prison staff recently printed a form for attorneys to submit each piece, and were issued a tracking number.
At Guantánamo through the years, documents that were considered classified or containing personally protected information were routinely stashed in an official Department of Defense “Burn Bag” and incinerated.
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.