Molly Crabapple: Inside A Guantanamo Bay Prison Tour
Drawings by Molly Crabapple
On August 28, prisoner Nabil Hadjarab left Guantanamo Bay.
Miss Holly, the three-time winner of Cupcake Wars, came to visit.
Sold for a bounty during the war in Afghanistan, Nabil had languished for over a decade in the island prison. Six years after he was cleared to leave, guards threw a hood over his head, and shackled him and another detainee, and led him aboard a military plane to Algeria, a country he had not seen since he was a teenager. Despite Obama’s promises to close Guantánamo, the pair were the first detainees transferred in over a year.
The next day, Gitmo guards lined up for Miss Holly’s cupcakes. I had the s’mores.
After VICE published my previous piece about my first visit to Gitmo, “It Don’t GITMO Better Than This,” a Department of Defense spokesman phoned my editor, upset that I’d made him look like “a tool.” A former camp doctor, Monty Granger, sent me over 100 tweets calling me a “#pathetic #Islamist #apologist.”
I first came to Gitmo to cover the military commissions. During my second trip, I was the third artist granted permission to draw the prisons. The Joint Task Force offers journalists a carefully choreographed tour—the point of which is to show that the Bad Old Gitmo of public perception is not Gitmo Now.
Bad Old Gitmo existed from approximately 2002-2007. Its orange jumpsuits, water-boarding, detainees sleeping in what Granger, who served at Guantanamo in 2002, gleefully described as “dog kennels.” Its guards pummeling prisoners in revenge for September 11. Bad Old Gitmo, like so many icons of the Bush era, is Not Humane.
And “humane” is the catchword of Gitmo now.
Guantanamo Bay has the air of an imperial backwater. On a horseshoe of Cuba, the United States turns its full military might to guarding 164 aging Muslim men. The president calls Gitmo a terrorist recruiting tool. In August, the Daily Mail reported that William Lietzau, the architect of Guantanamo’s military commissions, told them that it should never have been built. And yet it remains, in the sun and razor wire, waiting for America to declare the war on terror over.
At its height, Guantanamo Bay’s prisons held nearly 700 detainees. They are so called because no formal charges are leveled against them. They are neither criminals who can confront their accusers in court, nor POWs of any war that can end. In the words of former guard Brandon Neely, “Prisoners have rights. Detainees don’t.”
By the end of his second term, former President George W. Bush released more than 500 men—anyone from a country capable of the security measures the US demanded. Now, 164 remain, 84 of whom are OK’d to leave the base. Most are Yemenis, whom we won’t repatriate for fear that they will, in a Gitmo cliché, “return to the battlefield” in a country where al Qaeda holds significant sway. The detainees’ officially confirmed recidivism rate is 16.9 percent (the New America Foundation puts it at 4 percent) far below that of American criminals. But some politicians think that even one incident is too much.
Behind electrically locking doors, detainees have lived out a decade in legal limbo. They are banned from speaking to the press. Visiting journalists sign contracts saying they will ignore any attempt at communication, though detainees try. In 2009, Uighur prisoners crayoned “America is double Hetler in injustice” [sic] on their prison-issued sketchpads.
Gitmo spokesman Robert Durand told me that Geneva Conventions prevent me from speaking to the detainees. For them to be allowed interviews would make them a spectacle. Silencing them, it is implied, is for their own good.
In the Bad Old Days of Gitmo, Donald Rumsfeld called detainees “the worst of the worst.” But that was long ago. In Gitmo Now, the JTF’s mission is “safe, legal, transparent humane care,” as if, instead of men, they were guarding 164 gerbils.
Detainees may stay in Gitmo now until they die. But on the bright side, they get condiment packets with their meals: honey and olive oil! Compliant prisoners can take art classes, look at sailing magazines, and are even, if they are extremely cooperative, listen to MP3s. Gone, Gitmo officials claim, are the stress positions of former days. Now, if detainees inform on each other, interrogators reward them with pizza.
Guantanamo guard First Lieutenant Smith told me that “here [detainees] have more opportunities to enjoy themselves than in the places where they’re from.”
But though guards sign nondisclosure agreements when they leave, a few will speak about the old days. Brandon Neely, a Houston cop who served as a prison guard in 2002, told me: “We didn’t get no training. Before we even left the States, we were told the Geneva Convention was not… (in effect)… Before you walked in, they would tell you, don’t forget: these guys are the worst of the worst. They’ll kill you and they’ll kill your families in a heartbeat.”
I asked Neely about the Extreme Reaction Force, which beat detainees while removing them from their cells—allegedly crippling the former university teacher Sami Allaithy. On the BBC, Neely described how, during an ERF, he had slammed an old man’s head on to the floor. Neely wasn’t “on the front lines of Afghanistan like most of us wanted to be,” he said. “We were babysitting a bunch of these detainees, as we used to put it. It was our way of… seeking revenge.”
Since they usually serve nine- to 12-month tours, no current guard has ever seen Bad Old Gitmo. Every prisoner, however, has.
In the kitchen where Jamaican contractors prepare the detainees’ food, Sam, the head cook, poked at one of the six sample meals she’d prepared to show journalists. “They never say thank you,” she told me, before offering me a bite on a prison-approved spork.
During WWII, America held 6,000 German POWs in Aliceville, Alabama. Soldiers of the Thousand Year Reich enjoyed orchestras, jobs, and even doughnuts. Some liked America so much they decided to stay.
Those were the golden days for men captured “on the battlefield.” Of Gitmo, the best the JTF can say is that it resembles a US prison—though one in which the prisoners don’t know if they’ll ever go home.
Our van pulled up to the camps, sinister with barbed wire, watchtowers, and Gitmo’s slogan, Honor Bound [to Defend Freedom] spelled out in block and chain. A sign tells us the JTF Value of the Week is loyalty. Next week it might be selfless service, or integrity.
Guantanamo’s “high value detainees,” (exemplified by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, USS Cole mastermind al-Nashiri, and the 9/11 conspirators) live in Camp 7, a place so secretive that the JTF denied its existence until recently.
The detainees who lived in cell blocks supposedly like the empty ones we toured are not charged with crimes. They never will be. They are here because they are here. Since they are here, they had best “comply.”
Disobedient detainees are banished to the solitary cells of Camp 5. Each of the show cells I viewed had a sliver of window, a sleep mat, and clothes-drying hooks that flip down at 40 pounds of weight. A dead-voiced guard told me that this is to “prevent unintended consequences”. For four hours a week, detainees can watch TV with one foot shackled to the floor. Were they not in a “humane one-point restraint,” the guard told me, they might hang themselves with the wires.
Those who are compliant might live in Camp Six’s communal housing. Their cells are windowless concrete, with no shelter from all-seeing cameras. But the doors are not locked. Detainees are free to eat, shower, or play soccer in the rec-yard on their own schedule . For over a decade, this has been the best of all possible Gitmos. A guard pointed proudly to the ceiling. Weak light came out of four slits. “Look,” he told me. “Skylights.”
Detainees have not seen their wives, parents or children in the eleven years since they were arrested. According to Captain Durand, the JTF still hasn’t figured out a protocol for visits. We ended our day with a tour of the the detainees’ library. Solzhenitsyn is banned, as are any books on prisons. The librarian told me, “I think you know why.” I didn’t. and I still don’t.
In the van back to our hotel, press officers OPSEC’ed (or looked through) my sketchbook and camera. I was not allowed to draw security cameras, multiple buildings, or almost anyone’s faces. They deleted offending photos before dropping me off.
“I don’t understand what indefinite detention is” said 09171, her pretty face expressionless. Like most guards, she’s known only by a number. According to her co-worker 09166, since “it’s only been twelve years” since the detainees were free men, they are not really indefinitely detained at all.
The guards I asked claimed they have not beaten detainees, though, in riot-gear clad teams of six, they charge into their cells during “Forced Cell Extractions.” But British detainee Shaker Aamer told his lawyer Ramsi Kassem that he is “often beaten and sometimes choked.” According to Kassem, another of his clients, Moath Al-Alwi, was shot during an April raid with rubber-covered steel bullets. His bloody wounds were left untreated.
In a letter to the US Department of Justice, Kassem wrote: “Mr. al-Alwi requested that the investigative unit be called to take pictures of his wounds to evidence the prison guard’s apparent attempt to murder him. At first, a guard intervened, refusing to honor the request and threatening to send in the riot squad because, according to him, our client has no rights.”
The guards spoke in cliches. Working in prison was “doing the mission.” Thinking about the prison’s meaning was “not in my lane.” They claimed to have been told nothing of the imprisoned men. During pre-Gitmo briefings, guards listened to the 911 calls of New Yorkers who burned alive in the Trade Center.
Guards work 12 hours a day, with two more spent on mandatory group exercise. After that, there’s little time for anything but sleep. They’re surrounded by posters telling them to watch their calories and check their spiritual health. That they are on the battlefield. That the enemy is watching. They are just like the guys fighting in Afghanistan.
Navy Chaplain Eddinger told me that in his six months working at here, not one guard has ever thought what they are doing might be wrong.
This self-satisfaction extends up the chain of command. Rear Admiral Butler is the most powerful man on Guantanamo. A former fighter pilot, he had no corrections experience before being asked to run the world’s most notorious prison. Butler decorates his office with glossy photos of guards escorting handcuffed detainees. On his desk sat a binder of prisoner profiles, marked secret. He leafs through it daily.
Butler told me that were they freed, some of the detainees may “return to the battlefield.” When I asked where the battlefield is, or even if it does or does not have a geographical location, he refused to say.
At Gitmo, the staff kept asking me: “Are you surprised? Is this what you expected?” And silently, they seemed to be implying, We’re not monsters. Please write that we’re normal.
In the guards’ chow hall, NBC anchors fretted about Miley Cyrus’s twerking. What would America tell its children?
Lieutenant Commander Leonato welcomed us to the detainee hospital in Camp Delta. All medics go by Shakespearean names, rather than numbers like the guards. This is to help them bond with prisoners.
Like everyone who works at Gitmo, Leonato would not say “force-feeding”. Its enteral feeding or we’ll have to change the subject. Leonato insisted that shackled prisoners consent to the feeding tube, and even become angry when their feedings aren’t prompt.
Prisoners who resist get an “involuntary enteral feed”, which is totally not force-feeding. Leonato gave his speech next to a chair rigged with restraint straps. Next to it, he’d laid out bags, tubing and Ensure. Gitmo strives to be transparent.
According to medics, hunger-striking was “Being in the fight,” the same terms they used to describe terrorism. Detainees chose tube-feeding to “look cool.”
Former detainee Adnan Latif once compared force-feeding to “having a dagger shoved down your throat.” But medics denied the process hurt. To prove it, Leonato’s colleague passed out the tube. He told us it is pediatric size, but it felt large and stiff.
In 2004, courts forced the US to set up Combatant Status Review Tribunals, to figure out whether detainees had actually fought against America. Only two verdicts were allowed. “Enemy combatant” and “no longer an enemy combatant.” There is no “innocent” at Gitmo.
The results of these tribunals, and later Administrative Review Boards, are the basis on which we have imprisoned men for over a decade. Hearsay and torture-induced confessions were all permitted, as was the word of unnamed Afghans to whom we paid thousands of dollars per “terrorist” caught.
According to Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, “what Guantanamo has represented and continues to represent is indefinite detention often based on entirely unjustifiable and unreliable evidence.”
Out of the nearly 800 men who have been held at Gitmo, only 7 have actually been convicted of crimes. Of those, 3 are now free. Omar Khadr, (a Canadian who, at the age of 15, threw a grenade at US troops who stormed the village where he was staying in Afghanistan), is up for parole this year.
Colonel Morris Davis, who served as Guantanamo’s chief prosecutor from 2005-2007, told me “One of the jokes we used to make was that in order to win you had to lose. If you’re never charged, you could spend the rest of your life there.”
The last detainee to have won his habeus corpus petition was Adnan Latif. In 2008, a US district court judge ruled there was no evidence he belonged to al Qaeda. He committed suicide in Guantanamo 4 years later, returning to his family in a body-bag.
During the final the hours of my visit, I finally saw the detainees. Sergeant Packett rushed us into Camp Six. There, through a one-way mirror and two layers of fence, I saw the men SOUTHCOM Commander Kelly called “among the most violent and hateful on the planet.”
Billions of dollars have been spent to imprison these men. The laws of war were rewritten. To the world, America will never be the same.
Through the mirror’s dark glass, the detainees seemed preserved in amber. They were middle-aged, bearded, skinny– joking with each other like they’ve had no one else to speak to for the last decade. They sat on the floor, preparing to pray. One wore headphones. One tied a white sheet around his shoulders like a shawl.
I drew frantically.
After seven minutes, the guards kicked us out.
On a sunbaked strip of roadside, JTF units who’ve passed through here built sculptures. They are neither official nor required, but sincere works of art by people who do not think they are artists.
There are war pigs and obelisks—plaques painted with grim reapers, their scythes covered in blood. In 2002, engineer corps from Puerto Rico built a mini-Trade Center, like a secular crucifix. Called the Unit Graveyard, it is the soldiers’ stab at remembrance.
Never Forget, says every 9/11 bumper sticker. America built Guantanamo out of fear of another 9/11. But the prison is black hole of forgetting. Guards come and go. Contractors leave. Journalists chase other stories.
The detainees alone preserve Gitmo’s darkest memories. But JTF forbids them from communicating them to the ouside world.
Instead of names, the detainees are assigned numbers. To clear OPSEC, I gave them black scribbles for faces. Detainees are unpersons- unknown men grabbed out of their lives and into cages. To the JTF, they only matter as symbols.