Behind the Wire: Life at Guantanamo Bay

ByReporter's Notebook by KENDRA GAHAGAN

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Sept. 23, 2003 — -- The strangest sensation upon entering Camp Delta is the voices — voices speaking to one another in Arabic, from cell blocks that surround you, but whose inhabitants are hidden from view.

Camp Delta is the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. military is holding some 660 prisoners the government has rounded up in the war on terrorism.

Allowed into the camp as visiting journalists, we know the detainees are all around us. But as we walk past the buildings where they are held, we strain unsuccessfully to make out figures through the tightly meshed metal walls and shadowy hallways.

We are in Camp 1, one of three maximum-security camps within Camp Delta. Camp 4, the medium-security area where good behavior is rewarded with volleyballs and prayer rugs, will come later. Regardless of the degrees of security inside, razor wire twists menacingly for miles around every corner of Camp Delta, dubbed "The Wire" by the soldiers who guard it.

Walking by us as they exit Camp 1 are two officials from the International Committee for the Red Cross. The ICRC sends people here for weeks at a time to meet individually with detainees — the only group other than the military allowed access. The Red Cross has met with every detainee, some more than once, and with no military personnel present.

We nod politely as they walk past, fighting the temptation to pepper them with questions: What's it like in there? What are the detainees saying? What do they think will happen to them? The Red Cross has a policy of not talking to the media in such situations for fear it could compromise their primary role, which is providing humanitarian assistance to the prisoners. The Red Cross officials nod back at us and walk silently through Delta's gates.

First stop on our military-guided tour: an empty cell block. Camp Delta is not filled to capacity (it can hold about 1,000 people), so there are empty cells available as a stop for visiting journalists. Air is pumped through the building, making it slightly less stifling than the unforgiving heat that bakes the rest of the camp outside.

Stepping into an individual detainee cell is a surreal experience. The spartan facilities consist of a metal bed with a thin mattress, a toilet contraption in the floor and a small wash basin. Lifelessly draped across the bed is the infamous orange jumpsuit, seen so many times in video of Camp X-Ray, the cage-like facility where the first Guantanamo detainees were held in outdoor cells and often filmed walking to and fro between soldier escorts.

The military is eager to replace those images with the new, permanent Camp Delta, which has been open and operating for more than 17 months now. But limited media access has made that a difficult task.

Other "comfort items" are laid out in the cell by the military, such as linens, flip-flops, a water bottle, shorts, and a checkers game (which begs the question: how do you play alone?).

There were also several items that allow detainees to practice their Islamic faith — something the military highlights as a sign of the humane treatment at Camp Delta. A prayer mat, prayer oil, beads and the Koran are standard issue.

Prayer calls blare from camp speakers the traditional five times a day, arrows in the cells point prisoners in the direction of Mecca. The Koran issued to each detainee is never touched by any non-Muslim military guard. A Muslim chaplain is called in whenever the book needs to be handled.

It all seems so organized, it's easy to forget the level of danger the military says is a constant concern for prison guards. Detainees are never without hand and foot shackles when being moved anywhere. Thin slots at hand and foot level in the metal doors allow the guards to lock a prisoner into an area before removing his cuffs.

After their half-hour of daily recreation, detainees are allowed an outdoor shower, but with a mesh door so guards can watch them at all times (female guards stay just out of sight of the shower).

Although camp doctors say they've treated no soldiers with any wounds or scratches inflicted by detainees, our guides constantly mention steps they take with soldiers' personal security in mind.

Cell beds will soon be moved closer to the ground to allow even less space in which a detainee could hide. And a black stripe will be painted down the fronts of the cell doors since guards are finding it uncomfortable being unable to see clearly down cell block hallways at night.

It's all part of the learning process on how to run Camp Delta more efficiently, even 20 months into the process.

"We've learned a lot," says Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo. "We're very good and getting better every day. We have to."

And with only 68 releases so far and no sign that large numbers of detainees will ever face criminal charges, those involved in the operation at Gitmo appear to be planning for the long haul. Most of the detainees have been held at the facility for more than a year.

Among the camp's advancements since it opened in January 2002 is a system of rewards for detainees who share intelligence information or demonstrate good behavior — all of which could get them an upgrade to a coveted spot in Camp 4. Miller and other officials credit the system with a recent spike in intelligence gathering.

Guards say the camp has quickly become legendary among the detainees.

"It's kind of the unofficial Promised Land," Sgt. Rayonse Rowe, a supply specialist, says of the medium-security area. "Anybody who comes into the facility — they kind of know that if you get to Camp 4, that's where you want to be."

Our military guides lead us into Camp 4, where 100 well-behaved prisoners enjoy communal living instead of cells, group recreation and even picnic areas for meals. The volleyball pit and picnic tables in the courtyard are disconcerting, making the camp appear more like a park than a prison.

The rooms are noticeably cooler and dorm-like, with 10 beds per bay. Gone are the orange jumpsuits. Here, it's a more pristine white uniform, and flip-flops are traded in for canvas shoes. Draped across a table inside the room are woven prayer rugs — another personal touch to try to convince the detainees that life at Camp Delta can be better if they behave and cooperate.

No effort is spared to let the other detainees know they too can have a spot at Camp 4 if they earn it. New Camp 4 inductees have a sort of farewell ceremony — one last walk down their old cell block in the maximum-security camp, waving goodbye to their former prison mates.

Soldiers describe Camp 4 detainees as "more laid back," even friendly, waving or smiling at the guards — who they know have the power to send them back to Camps 1-3 if they misbehave. Detainees even get a cooler full of ice water — a true luxury in the Guantanamo heat.

There is no audible chatter in Camp 4. Here, each prisoner bay is separated by concrete walls with a small window on each front door. Our guides later tell us that the prisoners were likely taking turns watching us through the window.

The detainees who enjoy the best physical conditions at Guantanamo are three juveniles who are between the ages of 13 and 15. They are held down the road from the rest of Camp Delta, at a facility called Camp Iguana.

There's no barbed wire at Camp Iguana, though when we arrive one of the reptiles for which the camp is named is waiting at the gate.

The JEC's (juvenile enemy combatants) live together in what resembles a furnished apartment, with a kitchen, upholstered chairs, a table with games and books, even a television. They are shown videos — guards say the boys' favorites are cartoons and movies about animals. And they have the ultimate perk: air conditioning that pumps at full blast.

The boys have daily sessions with tutors and visits from pediatricians. They meet regularly with a Muslim chaplain and are allowed snacks to keep in the refrigerator (their favorites are bananas and other fruit — no American junk food).

In the yard where the boys take their two hours of daily recreation, their guards have cut holes in the green windscreen that runs along the fence, so the teens can get a glimpse of the ocean waves below. None of them had ever seen the sea before arriving at Gitmo and the guards say they are fascinated by it.

The substantial military staff dedicated to the care of the three includes former teachers and juvenile correctional facility officers. But critics are not assuaged by the exceptional conditions, saying international law requires that children have prompt access to legal assistance and be detained only as a last resort. Gitmo officials have actually recommended the juveniles for release but, in the meantime, try to demonstrate they are providing them the best attention and care available.

It is hard to get to the emotions of the soldiers who guard Camp Delta, all of whom will tell you they must be professional and put aside any feelings of anger or animosity in their daily interactions with alleged terrorists.

International criticism of what goes on at Guantanamo Bay seems far away for these soldiers. To them, guarding the camp is a job and they universally say they are proud of the work they do at Gitmo in fighting the war on terrorism. For some soldiers, like Sgt. Joseph Ademuwagun, every interaction with the detainees is a chance to do some good.

The soldiers treat the prisoners well "so that eventually, when they get released back to their country, they know that Americans are generous and good people," Ademuwagun says.

But from all indications of the plans for Camp Delta, it may be a precious few who will be walking out of its gates anytime soon to come to that revelation.