Seeking to ease conditions for angry and frustrated Guantanamo detainees, the commander of the prison camps has instituted language classes, a literacy program and wants to open communal areas for men held in isolation 22 hours a day.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Army Col. Bruce Vargo, commander of the military's Joint Detention Group at Guantanamo, said he hopes the changes at Guantanamo, where 275 men suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban are held, will lead to fewer attacks on guards.
The makeover contrasts with the situation at this isolated base in 2006, when commanders hardened the detention camps in the wake of a guard-prisoner clash and suicides of three detainees. They converted a new medium-security jailhouse into maximum-security, eliminating communal living areas — a move which Vargo said he intends to reverse.
"Make no bones about it, these are very dangerous men," Vargo said, citing incidents in which detainees splashed guards with bodily fluids, and head-butted, kicked and bit them. "But at the same time, you have to provide them with some type of out."
Lawyers for detainees say the assaults are partly triggered by frustration among men who, more often than not, were captured far from any battlefield and have been locked up for as many as six years with no real chance to confront accusations that they are enemy combatants.
David Remes, a Washington lawyer who represents 16 Guantanamo detainees, said the military should recognize it must improve its treatment of detainees and not justify these changes by saying they are aimed at reducing assaults. He said most detainees are in virtual solitary confinement, reportedly leading to mental problems.
There is now TV night for some of the best-behaved detainees, with DVDs of movies and TV shows shown on a high-definition Sony TV. A classroom in Camp 4, designated for the most compliant detainees, has metal desks and plastic chairs. Detainees are leg-shackled to the classroom floor.
Attention on humanities, not guards
Language courses have begun in English, Arabic and Pashto, Vargo said in the interview last week. He intends to soon offer classes on diverse subjects, perhaps including oceanography.
"If we can get them to focus on humanities programs, if we can get them to focus on recreation, then their sole focus is not going to be on the guard force," Vargo said. "It is my thought that if they are focused on those things, then the level of assaults and things of that nature will go down."
At Camp 4, dozens of birds sat on coils of barbed wire, chirping and singing, as soldiers escorted AP journalists inside. Five detainees in loose-fitting white shirts and pants sat at tables outside their communal living area, sharing a rice dish. On the other side of a chain-link fence, a bored guard standing in the shade of a plastic tarp watched the men. White and tan prison uniforms freshly washed by the detainees hung along the fence, drying in the winter sun. Guantanamo rules prohibit journalists from talking to detainees.
"I have instituted a very strict vetting program to get into Camp 4," Vargo said. "If you abide by the rules and you get through the vetting program then we move you in there."
Communal areas to open
Living conditions in Camps 5 and 6 are far stricter. Detainees are isolated up to 22 hours a day in individual cells.
Vargo said he wants to make Camp 6 more like Camp 4, and has mock-ups of modifications that will allow detainees to use communal areas. He wants to keep guards separate from the detainees but still enable them to check on each prisoner every three minutes to prevent suicides.
"We're doing something that is probably different in that this is a high-security detention facility with the amenities of a lower security facility," Vargo said. "That's what I'm trying to achieve."
Zachary Katznelson, an attorney representing detainees, said he welcomes planned changes.
"Right now the men in Camp 6 sit in steel boxes without windows for at least 22 hours a day," he said. "They have no mental stimulation, nothing to do.
"But the real issue remains the fact that the men are being held without charge or trial," Katznelson added. "English lessons do not equal a return to American values like due process. It's just putting lipstick on a pig."