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An inside look at Gitmo as detention facility faces uncertain future

| Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, 10:00 p.m.

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Just after 1 p.m., men shuffle in sandals into a large, open room. In one corner, a man strokes his long black beard; another drags a comb through thick hair.

It's prayer time, one of five throughout the day. The men carry prayer rugs over their arms and place them side by side. Stepping out of their sandals, they stand barefoot on the cold concrete floor, shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed, heads bowed, and begin to pray.

For Muslims worldwide, this is a normal ritual. But these men are detainees in Camp 6, inside Guantanamo Bay's detention facility on this 45-square-mile U.S. Naval base at the southeastern end of Cuba. It's a place far from their homelands. Believed to be the most expensive prison on earth, Gitmo (as it's generally called, which derives from airfield designation code GTMO) is a place of decadelong debate, intrigue and condemnation throughout the world.

About 100 reservists with the U.S. Army Reserves' 307th Military Police Company based in New Kensington have been deployed here for the past three months to guard the detainees. The U.S. government considers these detainees “enemy combatants” and some of the most dangerous men in the world.

“They're held under the auspices of federal law and international law as detainees of war,” says Army Col. Stephen Gabavics, commander of the Joint Detention Group, Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

The detainees' charges vary in degree; the most serious include alleged complicity in the 9/11 terrorist attacks — which killed nearly 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000 in New York, Washington and near Shanksville — and the bombing a year earlier of the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 39 others.

Once home to 779 detainees, the military prison at Guantanamo Bay now holds 61. Most are in Camp 6, with a smaller number in Camp 5. Those considered “high-value” detainees — the most dangerous, or those suspected of high-level connections to al-Qaida and the Taliban — are held in Camp 7, which remains a secret location.

Guard towers rise above chain-link fences topped with barbed wire that surround each camp, cloaked in black tarpaulin to block visibility in or out. The camps are state of the art, modeled after a medium security county jail and federal maximum security penitentiaries in the United States.

“This cell here,” says Gabavics, pointing to one in an empty cellblock, “is designed to allow them to be communal in the way that they live within these blocks.” He said no detainees are kept in solitary confinement. “That's not something we do here.”

Camp 6 detainees live in a 12-foot-by-8-foot cell, painted dark yellow and equipped with a toilet, sink, small desk and modest bed. For privacy, they receive magnets to cover the windows on the heavy steel doors in their cells that lead into the communal areas.

Each detainee receives six sets of clothing, a couple of pairs of shoes and sandals, Qurans, a prayer rug, a cap, prayer beads, a cushion to place their prayer rug on and a few other personal items. Some items are earned based on “compliant” behavior.

For 22 hours a day, detainees can move throughout the communal area of their cellblocks or indoor and outdoor recreation yards. A “super-rec yard” includes a half-sized soccer field, a track and a garden where detainees grow herbs.

“They'll share meals, they'll ... watch TV together, they'll pray together,” Gabavics says. The U.S. military does as much as possible to accommodate a detainee's welfare, he says, but “ultimately the No. 1 priority is the safety of our guard force and ... maintaining a peaceful environment.”

Detainees remain under constant surveillance. As they kneel and press their foreheads to the concrete floor in prayer, for example, guards stand in a darkened corridor, watching through one-way glass.

Detainees often turn to books and television for entertainment, according to other prison officials, who decline to be identified for security purposes. Camp Delta's prison library holds 30,000 items — some donated by families of 9/11 victims — and its books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, newspapers and video games are brought to the detainees. They are distributed weekly based on behavior, with the most compliant prisoner receiving up to 10 books, four CDs, four DVDs, a personal DVD player and 10 Playstation3 games.

The most popular books, besides religious materials, are the Harry Potter series; the library has several copies in different languages. The most popular DVDs are two American TV series — “Private Practice” and “Desperate Housewives.”

The prisoners' favorite Playstation3 game is Fifa Soccer, while “Fast & Furious,” “Days of Thunder” and “Top Gun” are among the most recent favorite movies.

The library also offers daily classes in second languages (including Spanish, Arabic and English), science, computer skills that teach typing, resume writing, business and personal finance and other subjects. The most popular class: art.

Examples of prisoners' artwork are displayed in the prison library's hallway and are a point of pride among guards and the command staff.

“We have some phenomenal artistic capabilities here in some of our detainees, who make everything ... full-blown ships that they make out of cardboard, with sails and everything else,” Gabavics says. A guard helped a prisoner with the ship, cutting up pieces of cardboard used for the ship's hull and T-shirts to create sails.

As Guantanamo's prison population declines, the future of its remaining detainees is uncertain, with much hinging on the outcome of November's presidential and congressional elections.

“We have to prepare for the possible closing down of operations,” says Navy Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, who commands Joint Task Force Guantanamo. “It would not be an extraordinary task to transfer the remaining detainees out of here, if given the order.”

Inside Camp 6's communal area, the midday prayers end; the detainees pick up their prayer rugs and talk briefly with each other. Media touring Gitmo are briskly moved out of the area because talking with detainees and photographing their faces are prohibited.

The morning sun traces light across the edges of Camps 5 and 6 and spills over round concrete barriers that spell out “Honor Bound” along the road that winds past Camp Delta.

From the edge of Camp Delta, the sun rises above the twisted wire and fencing and glistens off the empty guard towers standing above camps that are no longer used. Weeds grow, intertwined in the rusted metal, as the salty air blows the warm breezes from the Caribbean over the Guantanamo detention facility, which costs about $445 million a year to operate.

“All operations have to be based on what the prudent course of action is, and one of my objectives is to not be wasteful with money and other resources,” Clarke says. “So today I have the ability to start planning on reducing the resources, the manpower resources, that it takes to operate our facilities here. That's the direction I'm moving in.

“Nothing we may do,” he says, “is irreversible.”

NOTE: This story has been updated from the original to correct the designation of U.S. Army Reserves' 307th Military Police Company.

Justin Merriman is a photojournalist with the Tribune-Review. Reach him at jmerriman@tribweb.com.

Detainees pray in a communal area of Camp 6, one of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016. Camp 6 holds the majority of the remaining 61 detainees at the detention facilities on the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Detainees pray in a communal area of Camp 6, one of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016. Camp 6 holds the majority of the remaining 61 detainees at the detention facilities on the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo.
The sun rises above empty guard towers, above part of camps that are no longer used at Guantanamo Bay's Camp Delta on Aug. 13, 2016.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
The sun rises above empty guard towers, above part of camps that are no longer used at Guantanamo Bay's Camp Delta on Aug. 13, 2016.
A cell inside of Camp 6, one of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, is set up as an example of how detainees live and what supplies they recieve. Camp 6 holds the majority of the remaining 61 detainees at the detention facilities on the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
A cell inside of Camp 6, one of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, is set up as an example of how detainees live and what supplies they recieve. Camp 6 holds the majority of the remaining 61 detainees at the detention facilities on the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo.
A communal area inside of a cellblock at Guantanamo Bay's Camp 6, where the majority of the remaining 61 detainees, are held on the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo. Detainees are also held inside of Camp 5 and those considered “high-value” detainees – the most dangerous, or those suspected of high-level connections to al-Qaeda and the Taliban – are held in Camp 7, which remains a secret location.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
A communal area inside of a cellblock at Guantanamo Bay's Camp 6, where the majority of the remaining 61 detainees, are held on the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo. Detainees are also held inside of Camp 5 and those considered “high-value” detainees – the most dangerous, or those suspected of high-level connections to al-Qaeda and the Taliban – are held in Camp 7, which remains a secret location.
A soccer ball sits in a fenced-in area where detainees can play inside of Camp Delta near the Detainee Medical Clinic at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
A soccer ball sits in a fenced-in area where detainees can play inside of Camp Delta near the Detainee Medical Clinic at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016.
A copy of Harry Potter sits on a table of the library in Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016. The book is one of the most popular amongst detainees. Camp Delta’s prison library holds 30,000 items, some donated by families of 9/11 victims; detainees cannot visit the library, but its books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, newspapers and video games are brought to them. They are distributed weekly based on behavior, with the most compliant prisoner receiving up to 10 books, four CDs, four DVDs, a personal DVD player, and 10 Playstation3 games.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
A copy of Harry Potter sits on a table of the library in Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016. The book is one of the most popular amongst detainees. Camp Delta’s prison library holds 30,000 items, some donated by families of 9/11 victims; detainees cannot visit the library, but its books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, newspapers and video games are brought to them. They are distributed weekly based on behavior, with the most compliant prisoner receiving up to 10 books, four CDs, four DVDs, a personal DVD player, and 10 Playstation3 games.
Col. Stephen Gabavics stands in the doorway of an area where detainees meet with their lawyers at Guantanamo Bay's Camp Echo on Aug. 13, 2016.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Col. Stephen Gabavics stands in the doorway of an area where detainees meet with their lawyers at Guantanamo Bay's Camp Echo on Aug. 13, 2016.
A restraint is built into the floor in a room where detainees can watch T.V. and movies inside of Camp 5, one of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016. Detainees have one ankle shackled while sitting in a recliner to watch the television.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
A restraint is built into the floor in a room where detainees can watch T.V. and movies inside of Camp 5, one of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016. Detainees have one ankle shackled while sitting in a recliner to watch the television.
Cells line the hallway of Camp 5, one of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016. Camp 5 and 6 hold the majority of the remaining 61 detainees at the detention facilities on the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Cells line the hallway of Camp 5, one of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay on Aug. 13, 2016. Camp 5 and 6 hold the majority of the remaining 61 detainees at the detention facilities on the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo.
Artwork made by detainees at Guantanamo Bay hangs on the walls of the library in Camp Delta on Aug. 13, 2016.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Artwork made by detainees at Guantanamo Bay hangs on the walls of the library in Camp Delta on Aug. 13, 2016.
Tribune-Review photojournalist Justin Merriman
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review photojournalist Justin Merriman
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