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Guantanamo Bay officials describe prison's progress
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Any basic Internet search of Guantanamo Bay returns a flood of images of blindfolded detainees in orange jumpsuits housed in outdoor cages.

That irks the military officials who run the jails on this military base. The cages, known as Camp X-Ray, haven't housed prisoners in six years, they said. They like to describe their new, state-of-the-art detention facilities that have cost more than $400 million to build and staff in terms more suited to summer camp than prisons.

Camp X-Ray "still is pushed out to the world as the current conditions at Guantanamo, but nothing could be further from the truth," said Rear Adm. David Thomas, the camps' commander.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he wants to close the prison camp for suspected terrorists but has yet to say what he will do in its place.

As they await the decision of their next commander in chief, the military officials who have run Guantanamo for President Bush say they are ready to hold on to America's enemies in Cuba or move them elsewhere.

"The hard part, the important part to get ready is where you're going to put the detainees, and the legal process that you intend to use to continue any sort of prosecution or resolution of their cases," Thomas said. "The easy part is taking them from (Joint Task Force)-Guantanamo and putting them on an airplane."

Guantanamo may be the best known prison in the world. Opened in 2002, it has been assailed by activist groups such as Human Rights Watch as a "symbol of injustice" and defended by the Pentagon as the most humane prison camp in history.

In a recent tour provided by the military, reporters were led through the center and told that detainees take art classes, play soccer and basketball, and select Islamic dietary meals off menus.

Guards quiet their movements to a hush around prayer time so as not to disturb the detainees. And the prisoners can watch DVDs (one of their favorites, says Navy Cmdr. Jeff Hayhurst, is "Deadliest Catch," a series about the trials of Alaskan king crab fishermen on the Discovery Channel.)

Defense lawyers admit conditions have improved, but they said they are not permitted to dig beyond the surface of the operations at Guantanamo.

Michael Berrigan, who handles the Guantanamo cases, said detainee records are often secret. In the few cases where lawyers have seen records they have found instances of sleep deprivation in which detainees are moved from cell to cell at night to make them restless and get them to talk about what they know regarding terror plots and connections.

"When they want to show people, things tend to look nice and rosy," Berrigan said. "What's really going on, that's part of our job to try and uncover."

Camp 7, which houses the detainees the military consider the most dangerous, such as Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, remains a mystery. The military grants few people access to the highly classified location.

Camps 4, 5, and 6, which sit on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean, house the majority of the roughly 250 detainees in Guantanamo. Each has its own set of privileges and restrictions and detainees move from one to another based on their behavior.

Detainees in Camp 5, for example, can spend up to four hours a day in a small recreation yard with other detainees. Camp 4 detainees are allowed as much as 20 hours a day in a recreation yard and may play soccer or basketball with other detainees.

Camp 4 offers language classes, art class, a gardening area to grow vegetables, exercise equipment, foosball, table tennis and occasional movies.

Getting the programs right has been a long learning process. For example, Hayhurst, deputy chief of the prison camp, said a detainee broke one of their first TVs when he was offended by a Palmolive dishwashing liquid commercial that showed a woman with her arms exposed.

"Many things agitate them," Hayhurst said.

Detainees have access to three newspapers: USA TODAY and two Arabic-language newspapers. Hayhurst said the newspapers are censored to remove information about terrorist attacks, fellow detainee court hearings and offensive images.

A detainee can make one phone call a year to relatives back home. Hayhurst said they're trying to increase that to one call every three months.

Cmdr. Pauline Storum said there is one medical personnel — including doctors, nurses and Navy corpsmen — for every three detainees. And while 20 inmates remain on a hunger strike, they are fed through a tube that supplies at least 4,500 calories a day. "Several of them will complain if the nurses are late," Storum said.

The camps also have a cultural adviser.

"We may not understand why they do something, so he may provide a little insight," Hayhurst said.

Camp officials have also had to adapt to a population that remains violent. Hayhurst estimates that there are up to 10 assaults a week on guards.

Some throw urine or feces. When guards deliver food through a cell door inmates try to pull their arms in and break them, Hayhurst said. When guards reach through to shackle a detainee's feet, they sometimes try to stomp on the guard's hands, he said.

Thomas and others said they are constantly refining their techniques with the prisoners and are ready to hear how Obama would like things done.

"We serve the sitting president and will continue to do so until President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated," Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon said. "And then we will follow whatever policies that are enacted by his administration."

 
 
 
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