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A day in a detainee's life

Predictability, covert communication and isolation are hallmarks.

March 28, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Under gray skies all but obscured by an opaque canopy and high concrete walls topped with razor wire, two bearded young men in tan tunics are having "rec time" inside separate chain-link pens. One jogs frenziedly back and forth in the 30-foot enclosure; the other is curled like a fetus at the base of a cement block.

It's a dreary winter afternoon, but the scene could be any time of the day or night. The hour for rec time is one of the few unpredictable features in a day in the life of a detainee.

Visitors to the Guantanamo Bay detention center get few, brief glimpses of the detainees. But in reporting trips over the last three years, details have emerged through tours of the camps, conversations with lawyers, chance encounters, and the military commission proceedings that offer outsiders their only sanctioned opportunity to see the prisoners.

Reveille is at 5 a.m., when guards collect the single bedsheet allotted to each detainee. That precaution has been in effect since June 2006, when three prisoners were found dead, hanging from nooses fashioned from their bedding.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 05, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 316 words Type of Material: Correction
Guantanamo Bay: An article March 28 in Section A about a typical day in the life of a prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, as gleaned from reporting trips over the last three years, made several observations that Pentagon officials and officers of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo say are outdated or erroneous. The article said that reveille was at 5 a.m., when guards collect the bedsheet from each detainee. There is no reveille sounded at Guantanamo, and officials say the practice of collecting bedsheets ended in late 2006 for compliant detainees and last May for everyone else. The article said that lights were kept on in the cells 24 hours a day for security reasons, and that some prisoners grew their hair long to shield their eyes to sleep. Since September, all detainees have been issued sleep masks. The article said that detainees at Camps 5 and 6 could see each other only during prayer time when an aperture in their cell doors was opened. The prisoners can also see each other when being escorted to showers or interrogation, during recreation time and when the aperture is opened for meal delivery. The article referred to "the hour for rec time"; in fact, prisoners are allowed at least two hours of recreation daily. The article said the prison library had 2,000 books and magazines; it has 5,000, including multiple copies of many titles. The article said that once a prisoner had skipped nine meals he was considered to be on a hunger strike and taken to the medical center where he was force-fed. Medical officials say hunger strikers are force-fed only when their weight has fallen to 85% of their ideal body weight and a doctor recommends it. The article said that prisoners at Camp 4, a communal compound, were awaiting transfer home. Camp 4 holds prisoners judged to be compliant with camp rules.

Breakfast, like all meals, comes from the Seaside Galley. The Styrofoam containers are ferried to each of the camps three times a day, delivered to each prisoner in his cell by an unseen guard through the "bean hole," a small, covered portal at waist level in a cell's steel door. The bean holes are also opened during the five-times-daily Muslim prayer call, the only times prisoners can catch a glimpse of one another.

Detainee meal preparation has become part of the tour offered to visitors to Guantanamo. Visitors are told by civilian contractor Sam Scott that each prisoner gets more than 4,000 calories a day, with five meal choices to accommodate vegetarians, the overweight, the toothless and the sensitive of stomach.

Prisoners eat their meals in their cells. They seldom leave them. Each is equipped with a bunk, sink and toilet. Only the most compliant detainees can keep a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap. Those being disciplined or segregated from others must ask for their hygiene items from guards, who monitor their use, then remove them. To prevent a toothbrush from being shaved into a shank, the detainees are issued stout plastic rings with bristles attached.

When they do leave their cells, prisoners are shackled and escorted -- to and from showers, recreation pens, interrogation interviews, and a meeting or two each year with their lawyers. They leave their cells in the "hard facilities" of Camps 5, 6 and the new 7 for no other reason, unless they are found to need medical or dental treatment when corpsmen make periodic rounds.

Once a man has refused nine consecutive meals, he is considered a hunger striker and brought to the detention medical center. His head, arms and legs are strapped to a "restraint chair" while a tube is threaded through his nose and throat into the stomach. A doctor-recommended quantity of Ensure is administered.

To limit the number of men outside their cells at any one time, recreation hours are staggered around the clock, leaving many to choose between sleeping at 3 a.m. or getting a workout. No more than two are within speaking distance of each other during rec time, and even then they are separated by a guard.

The men do communicate, though. The guards call it DNN -- the Detainee News Network. Current world events are learned from visiting lawyers and somehow passed on through steel doors.

Several prisoners have been caught penciling messages in the books they borrow each week from the visiting library cart, one of the few distractions they are allowed.

More than 2,000 books and magazines in 18 languages are stocked for the prisoners, each vetted for its potential to incite. The "Harry Potter" series had been the most popular selection before a recent influx of nature and music books.

At the new Camp 7 facility for high-value detainees -- which jailers have dubbed "the platinum camp" -- the book most in demand now is "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," a nearly 20-year-old treatise by Stephen R. Covey.

The librarian, who didn't want to be identified, said books are inspected by intelligence agents after each return. Borrowers lose their reading privileges and are disciplined if found passing notes.

Discipline or segregation status means loss of "CIs," or comfort items. These include toilet paper -- each prisoner is given 15 sheets daily -- a change of clothing, a mattress, prayer beads, playing cards and a few hours' access to pen and paper.

Even bottled water is something that can be denied to those who break camp rules, as underscored during the recent war-crimes arraignment of Mohammed Jawad. The Afghan asked for water but was refused because he had balked at leaving his cell. Jawad had to be "ERFed" -- forcibly removed from a cell by the Emergency Reaction Force troops in riot gear.

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