While the president long has wanted the prison closed, Congress has outlawed any transfers to U.S. soil, leaving the military to contemplate caring for an aging population of permanent detainees.
GUANTÁNAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Military leaders are thinking about whether they eventually will need to install a wheelchair lift, widen some cell doors and add ramps for geriatric captives in the Guantánamo detention center.
None of the 80 prisoners are now in wheelchairs, and most are in their 30s or 40s. The oldest is 68. But briefings by senior military here made it known that they are starting to think about operating the offshore Pentagon detention center long after President Obama leaves office.
“At some point if detention operations continue here we will have to address, ‘Are the doors in the cells wide enough to move wheelchairs in and out? Are there ramps to reach the medical facilities?’ ” said Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, the prison commander. “And we’ve just started looking at that. So I can’t tell you we are ready or not. But it’s something we can plan for.”
Obama wants the prison closed, and a Pentagon plan proposes moving 30 to 40 captives to detention in the United States and releasing the rest to other countries. But Congress has outlawed any transfers to U.S. soil, and some members have proposed legislation to prevent transfers altogether, to anywhere.
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“If I’m told to transfer them to the United States or somewhere else — and I have a legal order to do so — we will carry out that order professionally, like we do any other transfer,” said Clarke, the 16th commander of prison operations.
Clarke, in the seventh month of what is traditionally a one-year assignment, offers guarded speculation on what the prison operation will look like this time next year. “I think we’ll have less detainees than we have today. I think we will have consolidated Camp 5 and 6. I’m not willing to predict whether we’ll have operations here at Guantánamo Bay or somewhere else.”
A week ago, 15 former CIA captives were still in seclusion at a clandestine site called Camp 7. Of the remaining 65 captives, 28 were on a list approved for transfer, spread out across three different sites capable of confining 300 captives.
Two among them wear orange jumpsuits, signaling that they are rule-breakers the military considered violent. But the other 63 were categorized as compliant and cooperative.
At Camp 6, where most captives are kept in cellblocks that allow them to eat, pray and watch TV together, the most frequent request from the prisoners is for replacement Tupperware, says the Army captain in charge, a special-education teacher in civilian life. Each cellblock has a food pantry equipped with a microwave, and they keep melting the containers. “They’ll hit 5 minutes, no matter what,” says the captain, a woman forbidden to say her name, even if she wanted it printed here.
The overwhelming impression that visiting reporters were given is of a peaceful prison. But they’re shown the communal building, not Camp 5, whose commander said that over the weekend a captive threw some bodily fluids on a guard. The chief of the guard force, Army Col. David Heath, confirmed overall compliance with the military’s rules. In the nearly two years he’s been Guantánamo’s version of a prison warden, he said, there were just two instances of detainees fighting each other. Both times it was over the remote control for a cellblock television.
Meanwhile, however, the overall commander defends the need to maintain a dedicated detention-center staff of 1,950 to 2,200 troops and civilians. The military is on its own here — no backup at the gate, which leads to a minefield and Cuba. Clarke said he might need his full force “if we had an act of mass noncompliance, a riot, something like.” Besides, he said, the 80 captives are spread out across four different facilities, and that makes it especially labor intensive.
Heath says he’s under no pressure to consolidate 65 captives who were held in three adjacent facilities during the visit. They’re spread among the 100-cell, maximum-security Camp 5, the 175-cell Camp 6 communal prison and the 24-hut Camp Echo across the street. One of the 65 was in the hospital, getting better from an infection.
“I don’t want to jam all those people into one place at one time,” he says. “It increases the potential for conflict and friction.”
But in a succession of interviews, prison leaders said they assume the mood on the cellblocks will change on the day after the last transfer.
Ten captives are in war-court proceedings, including six who await death-penalty tribunals and are unlikely to go to trial until after Obama leaves office. For the 28 captives cleared for transfer, the State Department is seeking destination countries and security arrangements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
But just over half are in varying states of indefinite detention, most awaiting parole-board reviews that have so far upheld seven captives as “forever prisoners.”