When I saw that 34 Jan. 6 defendants signed a handwritten letter asking to be transferred from a Washington, D.C., jail to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I raised an eyebrow like everyone else. The letter was submitted in court Friday and started trending on Twitter on Monday.
I have represented Guantanamo Bay detainees for almost a decade. The rosy picture painted in that handwritten letter bears no resemblance to the reality of Guantanamo Bay.
While the Jan. 6 defendants are wrong about conditions at Guantanamo Bay, they are not wrong about their own prison circumstances.
One early major controversy was caused by guards’ desecrating Qurans — hardly “being respectful of religious requirements,” as the defendants wrote. Guantanamo Bay also doesn’t have the “centers for exercise/entertainment” the men think it has; I and other lawyers have fought — and lost, for now — a battle to allow them to continue creating and publicly sharing their artwork as a form of therapy for the torture they suffered at U.S. hands.
Far from having access to “top-notch medical care,” the men have no meaningful care for their serious medical conditions, many stemming from that torture. It took years of lawsuits to get an MRI machine down to Guantanamo Bay, where it eventually broke permanently — but not before it confirmed one of my clients’ brain damage from his CIA beatings.
But while the Jan. 6 defendants are wrong about conditions at Guantanamo Bay, they are not wrong about their own prison circumstances. Inhumane conditions at Guantanamo Bay are at least partly an extension of prison culture in the U.S. The Washington jail where the Jan. 6 defendants are being held was the subject of a memo from the U.S. Marshals Service last year, which described the denial of food and water “for punitive reasons” and “large amounts of standing human sewage.”
Those issues have all been imported to Guantanamo Bay at various points over 20 years. And so has physical violence. Omar Deghayes has spoken about losing an eye after guards assaulted him. Military investigators uncovered that Mohammed al-Qahtani was forced to wear a bra and bark like a dog. When my clients Emad Hassan, Mohammed Ahmad Ghulam Rabbani, Abu Wa’el Dhiab and Samir Moqbel protested their detention with a hunger strike, they were brutally force-fed while immobilized in restraint chairs. The past few years have seen leaking sewage and failing infrastructure in the camp where my client Ammar al Baluchi was held, creating unsanitary conditions in times of Covid-19.
There have been no reports that the Jan. 6 defendants are being treated worse than other inmates at the Washington jail, and the conditions there are not unique among U.S. facilities. Rikers Island in New York, for example, has long been known for horrific conditions. It made headlines once again last year for having, according to a New York Times report, “certain areas covered in garbage and urine.”
This is a result of overcrowding and understaffing — and, well, searing indifference to the well-being of the inmates. The solitary confinement decried by the Jan. 6 defendants on page four of their letter? Families and supporters of inmates on Rikers have claimed that their loved ones have been locked up in solitary confinement for extended periods of time in violation of the state’s HALT Act, which was signed into law last year.
In fact, the widespread use of solitary confinement and other punitive conditions in U.S. prisons so alarmed Juan Méndez, who served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (an independent torture expert) from 2010 to 2016, that he publicly criticized the country. Then the U.S. would not grant him access to inspect state prisons. Méndez accused the U.S. of delaying his review of its facilities. The U.S. government has also barred U.N. special rapporteurs from inspections at Guantanamo Bay since it opened in 2002.
Even with all of this, many Americans may not notice the brutality inflicted by the government. Race is a major factor. Black Americans are imprisoned at nearly five times the rate of white Americans in state prisons. Similarly, the men tortured by the U.S. government and now languishing in harsh conditions without medical care at Guantanamo Bay are exclusively nonwhite Muslims. Systematic racism depends on apathy toward the “otherized” minority.
It should alarm us that the conditions at the Washington jail, where mostly Black people are imprisoned, make national headlines only when predominantly white prisoners complain about the conditions there (and misguidedly ask for transfers to the one place synonymous with torture around the world). And perhaps if the detainees were all white men from Western countries, Guantanamo Bay would have been closed ages ago — if it had ever been opened in the first place.
But allyship can take many forms, and fundamental human rights apply equally to those charged with conspiracy, like some of the Jan. 6 defendants, as those charged with nothing at all, like most of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. If the Jan. 6 defendants help us force the U.S. government to reform our ugly culture of inhumane imprisonment, then I welcome their voices on this critical issue and hope for real change in their conditions as my colleagues and I work for real change for the men at Guantanamo Bay.
Let’s just all agree that transfer to Guantanamo Bay is no solution.