New Report Finds Treatment of Detainees Unnecessarily Harsh
June 11, 2008
Security measures don’t justify locking people in windowless cells 22 hours a day, for months and years on end, with almost no opportunity for human interaction, physical exercise or mental stimulation.
Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel

More than two-thirds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, including many cleared for release or transfer, are being housed in inhumane conditions that are reportedly having a damaging effect on their mental health, Human Rights Watch said in a new report.

The 54-page report, “Locked Up Alone: Detention Conditions and Mental Health at Guantanamo,” documents the conditions in the various “camps” at the detention center, in which approximately 185 of the 270 detainees are housed in facilities akin to “supermax” prisons even though they have not yet been convicted of a crime. These detainees have extremely limited contact with other human beings, spend 22 hours a day alone in small cells with little or no natural light or fresh air, are not provided any educational opportunities, and are given little more than a single book and the Koran to occupy their time. Even their two hours of “recreation” time – which is sometimes provided in the middle of the night – generally takes place in single-cell cages so that detainees cannot physically interact with one another.

“Guantanamo detainees who have not even been charged with a crime are being warehoused in conditions that are in many ways harsher than those reserved for the most dangerous, convicted criminals in the United States,” said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Security measures don’t justify locking people in windowless cells 22 hours a day, for months and years on end, with almost no opportunity for human interaction, physical exercise or mental stimulation.”

Unlike prisoners – including convicted terrorists – in most “supermax” prisons in the United States, none of the Guantanamo detainees have been allowed visits by family members and very few have been able to make phone calls home. Several are reportedly suffering depression and anxiety disorder, and some have reported having visions and hearing voices. Requests by attorneys for outside psychiatric evaluations and improvements in conditions of confinement have generally gone unanswered.

For many detainees, the isolating confinement is not a time-limited response to a disciplinary infraction, but something that they have faced, day in and day out, for years.

Guantanamo officials claim that detainees are housed in these supermax-like facilities because of bad past behavior, and that they can earn their way out with good behavior. However, there is no regular review process, no time period for the reviews, and no set rules or guidelines dictating when someone should be housed in such extreme conditions. Several detainees have reported that they have no idea why they remain in such harsh living conditions and have little hope of being moved.

Based on interviews with government officials and attorneys, this report details the experiences of more than a dozen detainees who have spent years in such conditions, including several detainees who have long ago been cleared for release from Guantanamo, but cannot be repatriated due to the likelihood they will be tortured upon return. It also describes the experiences of two detainees – Mohammed Jawad and Mohammad El Gharani – who were teenagers when they were taken into custody and have now spent a quarter of their lives at Guantanamo. Jawad has reportedly tried to commit suicide at least once, and El Gharani at least seven times.

“Guantanamo should be closed, and many of these detainees will ultimately be released,” said Daskal. “In the meantime, it is unwise and short-sighted to house them in conditions that likely have damaging psychological effects and will only breed hatred and resentment of the United States over the long term.”

In March 2008, the Pentagon announced that it would allow detainees to make phone calls home, with an ultimate goal of two phone calls per year. To date, however, only approximately 40 detainees have been allowed phone calls under this new program. Military officials at Guantanamo have also told Human Rights Watch that they plan to make several additional changes in the future, including allowing increased recreation time, providing regular opportunities for detainees to congregate, and instituting additional language classes. No schedule for these improvements, however, has yet been announced.

These reforms are long overdue, and should be implemented as soon as possible, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch also urged the United States to limit the use of supermax-like units as punishment for set 30-day periods and not as facilities for long-term detention, allow videoconferencing in addition to phone calls with family members, and provide detainees with educational opportunities and materials to promote mental engagement and reduce depression, such as additional books and writing and drawing materials.