Guantánamo to demolish prison camp built to send message of ‘hope’

Guantánamo detainees, in white, and U.S. military guards walk around the Camp 4 detention facility in this Nov 18, 2008, file photo.
Guantánamo detainees, in white, and U.S. military guards walk around the Camp 4 detention facility in this Nov 18, 2008, file photo. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The military has put a federal court on notice that it plans to demolish the Detention Center’s first communal, prison-of-war style prison, a site where guards posted President Barack Obama’s Guantánamo closure order on an outdoor bulletin board and detainees saw it fade in the sunshine.

Camp Four, as it was called, was opened in 2003 as a bunkhouse-style lockup for up to 175 captives. It was the first place where war-on-terror detainees could eat and pray together, kick around a soccer ball and take classes. It opened as a pre-release site to prepare prisoners approved for repatriation, but eventually became a perk for cooperative captives.

As it was being built, then Detention Center commander Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller said it would send a message of “hope” to the more than 600 captives held at Guantánamo. “Medium-security is a recognition of cooperation and adherence to the rules,” the general told reporters at the time. “It gives them hope. Hope is of enormous importance.”

Captives came to call it the “Big Sky” camp because it was the first site where they could walk unshackled in open spaces, albeit surrounded by fences and barbed wire. It was closed for a time in 2006 after detainees resisted squads of guards coming in to search their belongings after a double suicide attempt in an adjacent single-cell prison block at Camp Delta.

In a notice filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the current prison commander, Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, said that Camp Four closed in 2011 and has “deteriorated into a state of disrepair.” He said the cleared site might be useful for administrative space in a consolidated Detention Center Zone.

Hours later, President Donald Trump revoked Obama’s closure order and said the United States would add captives to the 41-prisoner detention center “when lawful and necessary to protect the nation.” Obama never added a single captive to the prison and downsized it from about 240 detainees through transfers that enable consolidation of the facilities.

RELATED: Trump revokes order to close Guantánamo prison, declares it open for new captives

The court has a protective order on any place where captives were kept as a possible crime scene. But Cashman said FBI agents had carried out surveys of Camp Four in 2014 and 2017 from which a three-dimensional model could be fashioned in the future. The admiral’s notice said the prison would use existing funds to level the site sometime in February.

The admiral also said 15 of the 41 war-on-terror captives currently imprisoned at Guantánamo had at one time been housed in Camp Four — none of them the so-called high-value detainees held by the CIA before their transfer here in September 2006.

MIAMI HERALD GUIDE: Guantánamo prison facilities

Separately Tuesday, the Navy published a notice to would-be contractors of plans to build a barracks complex for 848 enlisted troops assigned to the prison staff. This was a $124 million project championed by now White House Chief of Staff John Kelly when he was a Marine general supervising Detention Center operations, but that was never funded during the Obama administration.

Prison commanders have said the barracks would not be built in the Detention Center Zone, where the prison buildings are situated. Instead it was planned for a main street on the base, Sherman Avenue, across the street from Guantánamo’s McDonald’s and a short walk to the base bar, O’Kelly’s Irish pub.

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A copy of President Barack Obama’s executive order requiring the closure of the prison camps is seen posted on a bulletin board at Camp 4 at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on April 2, 2009, in this image approved for release by the military. JOHN VANBEEKUM MIAMI HERALD

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg