A day in a detainee’s life

Times Staff Writer

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.

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.

Only at Camp 4, a barracks-like compound with fewer than 50 prisoners, do men take their meals together or congregate. The communal-living camp designed for the most compliant prisoners once teemed with nearly 200 bearded young men kicking soccer balls or playing card games on their cots or at outdoor tables.

Older guards called it the “Hogan’s Heroes” camp, after the 1960s TV show about U.S. POWs in World War II Germany. But it was emptied after a May 2006 riot over searchers’ mishandling of the holy Koran.

Now repopulated with men awaiting transfer home, Camp 4’s dusty oval sports court is idle and the prisoners’ outdoor activities consist mainly of doing their laundry. Hand-washed towels and white undergarments can be seen poking through the chain link of the surrounding fences as they dry in the warm Caribbean air wafting from an ocean that the prisoners never see -- not even when they are transferred off the island, because they are blindfolded.

A schoolroom was added to the predominantly Afghan camp last year to teach basic written Pashtu and Urdu to the illiterate.


Leather-and-steel shackles protrude from the floor beneath each desk where prisoners’ ankles are tethered during classes.

Two video screens were installed at Camp 4 last year with plans to show movies to reward good behavior. The opportunity to make phone calls to family abroad is also being considered, said Army Lt. Col. Ed Bush, a Guantanamo spokesman.

Only the occasional detainee being moved to the medical facility or the Camp 4 inmates hanging their laundry are visible to visitors. Every now and then a prisoner in the white garb denoting the highly compliant waves or clowns for photographers, but any image showing his face will be deleted by censors.

The solitary life endured by the majority winds down each evening with the last bean-hole exchange and a final prayer call.

A yellow traffic cone marked with a P (for prayer time) positioned at the head of the cellblock reminds guards to keep the noise down.

The end of a day is signaled at 10 p.m. by the arrival of the bedsheet.

But a Guantanamo detainee’s day doesn’t end with the usual prison ritual of “lights out.”

Lights are kept on in the cells 24/7 for what military jailers said were security reasons.

Some prisoners grow their hair long and drape it across their eyes to aid sleeping, as Australian David Hicks, transferred home last year, told his lawyer in explaining his nearly waist-length tresses.


Sleep is probably episodic, with the guards’ boots audible every few minutes as they look for “self-harm incidents” or signs of prisoners “weaponizing” their few belongings.

Another day like the more than 2,000 most have already spent here is heralded at 5 a.m. when a guard arrives to retrieve the bedsheet.