GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba--Last week, I went on a media tour of the Guantanamo Bay prison, where the U.S. military is holding 155 men who were deemed “enemy combatants” in the war against al Qaeda and its affiliates by the Bush administration.
Most of the remaining prisoners at Gitmo have never been charged with a crime and nearly 80 of them have been cleared for transfer to other countries by the Obama administration. Others the government believes are too dangerous to release, but it does not have enough admissible evidence to charge them. Various diplomatic, legal and political hurdles have left these men languishing, thwarting President Obama’s aging campaign promise to close the Cuban prison down.
In the meantime, the military allows journalists to tour parts of the controversial detention facility and its tropical surroundings in small groups chaperoned by cheerful public affairs officials. They stress that the prisoners are treated humanely as they await the end of their legal limbo. The base, which is overrun by giant iguanas that sun themselves on steep cliffs overlooking the Caribbean, is more than just a giant prison and its staff. There’s a McDonalds, Pleasantville-esque residential cul de sacs where military personnel live, a movie theater, and O’Kelly’s, an Irish bar.
Over three days at Gitmo, I spent less than an hour total in the prisons. The rest of the time was parceled out into interviews with prison staff, an extensive tour of the kitchens where prisoners’ food is prepared and in the mess hall where Gitmo military personnel eat their meals. Another chunk of each day was devoted to “OPSEC review,” the military term for going through journalists’ photos and videos and deleting any images that show the faces of people who work in or near the prisons. (OPSEC stands for “operational security.”) The staff deletes photos for other security reasons, too, such as showing the location of more than one prison gate or a surveillance camera.
There’s no “OPSEC” for language. (We didn’t have to turn over our notebooks for review.) But public affairs officials and other staffers do choose their words very carefully when talking about Gitmo, and will occasionally correct reporters if they use terms that do not fit with their own messaging on the prison. The “detainees”—never prisoners or inmates—are well cared for in the “detention center,” or “camp”--never prison or jail. “Noncompliant” detainees—which include men who are well behaved but are protesting their indefinite detention by refusing to eat—are housed in “single cell operations”—never solitary confinement.
Here are a few of the phrases that you are unlikely to hear if visiting Gitmo:
1. Inmate/Prisoner (military term: detainee)
Public affairs officials and other people associated with Gitmo shun the use of the word “inmate” or “prisoner” to describe most of the 155 men imprisoned in Guantanamo. Instead, “detainee” is used. Only the handful of men at Gitmo who have been charged with a crime—including accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed--are called “prisoners” by its staff. The reasoning is that prisoners are serving time for a crime, while detainees are simply waiting for the government to charge them or release them.
2. Prison (military term: Detention center)
The $17.5 and $37 million dollar facilities where most Gitmo detainees are kept are referred to as “camps” or “detention centers”—never prisons. “Number one, it’s a detention facility,” one civilian employee who serves as a “cultural advisor” corrected me during our interview when I referred to Camp 6 as a “prison.” (Like most Gitmo employees, the cultural adviser did not want to be named, except for by his first name, Zak.)
Cmdr. John Filostrat, the head of public affairs at Guantanamo, said that unlike a typical U.S. prison or jail, Gitmo serves no correctional function. “We’re not trying to correct any behavior here,” he said. “We’re not here to punish…or correct the detainees.”
3. Solitary Confinement (military term: Single Cell Operations)
People who are imprisoned in Camp 5—reserved mostly for “noncompliant” detainees—are separated into 80 square feet cells with a hole in the door to pass food and medicine. They are allowed to watch TV one by one in a special room while shackled to a tan plush chair for four hours a week, depending on their behavior. They also get some time outside each week, and if they’re well behaved, they can attend outdoor recreation time with other detainees, according to the military.
Gitmo officers call this isolated living situation “single cell operations,” and say that “solitary confinement” is an incorrect way to describe Camp 5. “There’s no solitary confinement--there’s single cell operations here,” Filostrat said.
Most experts define solitary confinement as spending 22 or more hours of each day alone in a cell, which is the case for the “non compliant” inmates who are detained in Camp 5. Some of Camp 5’s prisoners, however, have up to 8 hours a day of recreation, according to Captain Andi Hahn, a Gitmo public affairs officer.
4. Censorship (military term: OPSEC)
Before arriving on the base, journalists must agree to submit their photos and video to military public affairs officers at the end of each day so that they can review them and delete images they believe jeopardize the base’s security. The first morning, we were shown a Power Point presentation that read “operational security is NOT censorship.”
Another place the word “censorship” is not appreciated is the detainee library. The librarian goes through book donations and removes any books, movies or magazines that he thinks are not appropriate for the detainees. (50 Shades of Gray for example, is not allowed.) “We don’t ban books, we screen them,” the librarian told me.
5. Suicide (military term: self harm)
One of the most important jobs of Gitmo guards is to make sure no detainee commits suicide. In both Camps 5 and 6, guards must look at each detainee and verify that he is alive every 1 to 3 minutes, including when prisoners are asleep. (Video cameras in each cell that feed back into a central control room also help the guards accomplish this.)
But in three days of interviews, I never heard a single person say the word “suicide.” Instead, the military talks about how they are taking care of the detainees and keeping them “safe.” Even when guards who work in Camp 5 showed me that the hooks in the single cells break off when more than 40 pounds are put on them, they never used the word “suicide.”
“Our number one job here is to keep detainees safe,” Filostrat said. “If they try to harm themselves that is definitely against our policy.”
6. Force-feeding (military term: enteral feeding)
The prison’s medical staff will restrain and then feed through a nasal tube any prisoner who refuses to eat and they fear may starve to death. The medical and public affairs staff calls this process “enteral feeding.” The American Medical Association and many human rights groups say prisoners should have the right to protest by refusing food, even if it leads to their own death, and say force-feeding is inhumane and unethical. The U.S. government’s policy is that no prisoner in its care should be allowed to harm him or herself, even in protest.
7. Detainees’ names (military term: ISN)
Guards refer to detainees by their “ISN” (internment serial number), never their names. A few guards I talked to say they try to know as little about the detainees’ past as possible, including where they are from and what crimes, if any, they were accused of committing. (Prisoners also refer to guards by the numbers written on their uniforms.) This helps them deal with the detainees in a dispassionate and impersonal way, they say.
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