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The insanity inside Guantánamo

A new report reveals that a number of prisoners – even some long ago cleared to leave – are spiraling into hallucinations, despair and suicide.

Approximately 185 of the roughly 270 men still being held at Guantanamo – including many who have been cleared for release or transfer – are being housed in facilities akin to US “supermax” prisons. Such detainees spend 22 hours a day alone in small cells with little or no natural light or fresh air, extremely limited contact with other human beings, and little more than a book and the Koran to occupy their time. Several are reportedly suffering from depression and anxiety disorder, and some have reported having visions and hearing voices.

Algeria isn't accepting detainees back home, but even it were, Belbacha is so fearful of being tortured there that he has asked the U.S. federal courts to block his return. But there is no other country willing to take him, and he remains stuck in Guantánamo – locked in his windowless cell 22 hours a day, with little more than a Koran and single other book to occupy his time.

In December, Belbacha reportedly tried to commit suicide and was moved to the mental health facility. He was stripped naked, dressed in a green plastic rip-proof suicide smock, and placed in an individual cell under constant monitoring – Guantánamo's suicide watch. He says he was given absolutely nothing else in his cell – no toothbrush, no soap, no books, nothing he could somehow use to injure himself.

Each morning a member of the mental health staff reportedly came by and asked the same set of questions: Do you want to hurt yourself? Do you want to hurt anyone else? Are you sleeping well? Are you eating well?

Close to two months later, he apparently had answered all the questions correctly and was moved back to another windowless cell.

More than half of the 270 detainees currently at Guantánamo – including many who are slated for release or transfer – are housed in high-security facilities akin to U.S. "supermax" prisons. They spend all but two hours a day in small cells with no natural light or fresh air. Their meals are slipped through a slot in the door, and they are given little more than a single book and the Koran to occupy their time. Even their limited "recreation" time – which is sometimes provided in the middle of the night – generally takes place in single cell cages so that detainees can't physically interact with one another. None of these detainees have been allowed visits by family members, and very few have been able to make phone calls home.

As a result, many detainee lawyers say, their clients are suffering from serious and even dangerous mental health problems. Several have tried to commit suicide, some of them multiple times. Others have reported having visions and hearing voices. Some show strong signs of depression and anxiety disorder.

The Department of Defense does not allow any outsiders, including journalists and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, to speak with the detainees at Guantánamo, so it is difficult to get a full picture of the prison conditions and the toll they may be taking on detainee mental health. In addition, the DOD has generally prohibited attorneys from bringing in outside psychiatrists to evaluate the mental health of their clients, forcing attorneys to rely on "proxy" evaluations based on questionnaires the lawyers administer to their clients.

However, in a new report based on interviews with government officials and attorneys for detainees, as well as declassified notes attorneys took in meetings with detainees, Human Rights Watch has pieced together a physical description of the various "camps" at Guantánamo and the inhumane conditions that prevail within them. Titled "Locked Up Alone: Detention Conditions and Mental Health at Guantánamo," the report also documents the increasingly frequent complaints of mental health deterioration among the more than one dozen detainees profiled in case studies.

Mohammad El Gharani, a young Chadian who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, was reportedly arrested at a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, when he was only 15 years old and brought to Guantánamo in early 2002. He was wrongly classified as 25 and held as an adult. (He is now 21.) For the past two years, he has been held in two of Guantánamo's most restrictive high-security camps.

Gharani's lawyers say he has tried to commit suicide at least seven times. He has slit his wrist, run repeatedly headfirst into the sides of his cell, and tried to hang himself. On several occasions, he has been put on suicide watch in the mental health unit, given the green suicide smock, and placed in a single cell with no other items other than toilet paper. Each time, he has been moved out of the suicide unit and back into high-security detention.

Often subject to punishment for reported disciplinary problems, El Gharani says he is often left with nothing in his cell other than a mat for sleeping, a Koran and toilet paper. He says that at times even some of the basic items that all detainees are reportedly allowed at all times – including a finger toothbrush and small bar of soap – have been taken away.

He has never been provided any educational or additional recreation opportunities in accordance with his juvenile status at the time of capture. He has never been allowed to speak with – let alone see – any of his family members during his more than six years in U.S. custody. Like the majority of detainees at Guantánamo, he has not been charged with any crime.

A Guantánamo detainee named Walid, a 28-year-old Palestinian (whose lawyers requested that we withhold his last name), was reportedly sold to the United States by the Pakistani security forces, after the U.S. began offering bounties for suspected terrorists. He was among the first arrivals to Guantánamo Bay in early 2002. As of February 2008, he was "approved to leave" by U.S. officials – yet since 2007, he has been held in one of the high-security camps.

Since his arrest, Walid has had very little contact with his family, who thought he was dead until, several years after his initial detention, he was able to send them a postcard. He has not, to his attorney's knowledge, been able to speak with any of his family members. Since learning of his whereabouts in 2005, his family has been writing to him and has sent him photos, including pictures of nieces and nephews he has never met.

Around 2003 or 2004 he went on a hunger strike for 20 months and was force-fed through intubation. At one point Walid, who is approximately 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed only 96 pounds.

His attorneys report that they have long been worried about Walid's mental health, which they believe has been deteriorating over time. They describe him as lethargic, listless and distracted, and took the following notes of his speech:

I love cowboys. I love Indians. I feel like they're my family ... I knew an Indian woman in Gaza – she talked a witch language. I won't tell you her name because she might send me a witch curse ... Tarzan is a lovely person – very polite – he's my friend, though he doesn't [know] it. I don't watch for entertainment but for another reason – a secret – I won't tell you ... I live in heaven, heaven is in my chest. I love Jesus, I want to see him, and all the mermaids around them.

After the U.S. denied Walid's attorneys' requests to release Walid's medical records, and knowing that they would not be allowed to bring in an independent psychiatrist to evaluate him in person, Walid's attorneys retained Dr. Daryl Matthews, a psychiatrist once hired by the Department of Defense to evaluate the mental health facilities at Guantánamo. They asked Matthews to prepare a questionnaire by which he could do a proxy psychological assessment. From the results of this questionnaire, Matthews concluded that Walid appears to have developed schizophrenia and suffers from delusions, significant anxiety and depression.

In 2001 a group of 18 Uighurs, an ethnic minority from Xinjiang region in western China, was living together in a camp in Afghanistan when the coalition bombing started. They claim that they fled to the Afghan mountains, were led across the border to Pakistan by some other travelers, and were sold to the United States for bounty money. Five other Uighurs also ended up in Guantánamo, possibly sold to the United States as well.

Most of these men have been cleared for release since 2003, yet remain in Guantánamo because they can't return to China, and neither the United States nor any other country has been willing to take them in. While five of the Uighurs were resettled in Albania in 2005, 16 others remain housed in one of the most draconian facilities in Guantánamo, reportedly because they threw feces and urine at prison guards following a dispute about the Koran in May 2007. But instead of receiving a 30- or 90-day punishment, as is common in U.S. prisons for disruptive behavior, the Uighurs were moved into one of the highest-security, most restrictive parts of the facility -- indefinitely.

As of April 2008 – almost a year later – these men were moved to their own wing of the camp, where they are reportedly allowed to keep the meal slots in the door open most of the day, so that they can more easily speak to each other without shouting. Military officials also claim that they are now being granted additional recreation time, including the chance to go into a single recreation pen with another detainee, and that ultimately they will be able to leave their cells during the day and mingle in the common space in the pods.

For now, however, they still spend the majority of their days locked in their totally enclosed, windowless cells, unable to congregate for meals or prayer time, and unable to see each other as they talk through the meal slots.

In April, before being moved to the "Uighur wing," one of the Uighurs, Huzaifa Parhat, described his daily routine to his attorney, who wrote:

Wake at 4:30 or 5:00. Pray. Go back to sleep. Walk in circles -- north, south, east, west -- around his 6-by-12 foot cell for an hour. Go back to sleep for another two or more hours. Wake up and read the Koran or look at a magazine (written in a language that he does not understand). Pray. Walk in circles once more. Eat lunch. Pray. Walk in circles. Pray. Walk in circles or look at a magazine (again, in a foreign language). Go back to sleep at 10:00 p.m.

The next day is the same except that the detainee may leave his cell for two hours of recreation in a slightly larger pen or for a shower.

Another Uighur, named Abdusemet, described days on end of doing nothing other than eating, praying, pacing and sitting on his bed.

"I am starting to hear voices, sometimes," Abdusemet told his attorney, worriedly. "There is no one to talk to all day in my cell and I hear these voices." He continued: "What did we do? Why do they hate us so much?"

The U.S. government insists that the harsh conditions that exist at Guantánamo are necessary and legitimate. U.S. officials say that many of the detainees held there are sworn enemies of the United States. They note that some of the men have posed difficult and continuing management problems, engaging in misconduct that ranges from throwing "cocktails" of urine and feces at guards, to attempting to stage riots. They point to a recent slew of head-butting incidents, in which detainees have allegedly injured guards.

Indeed, it was after a riot in May 2006 – when detainees attacked guards with improvised weapons, including broken pieces of light bulbs – followed by three suicides the following month, that the military significantly increased security to prevent further disturbances. Detainees' repeated hunger strikes and suicide attempts, which many outside observers perceive as cries for help, are seen by the military as challenges to its authority.

Still, while security concerns may explain some of the controls at Guantánamo, it's hard to justify the extent of such extreme isolation. Although officials try to rationalize harsh conditions, it may be that the regime of prolonged, extreme isolation is contributing to the despair and insubordination among even the innocent or unlucky.

Military officials at Guantánamo appear to recognize the need to provide detainees additional stimuli and social opportunities. In March, 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 made phone calls under this new program. Military officials at Guantánamo 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.

Continuing to house detainees in single-cell units 22 hours a day with virtually nothing to do all day long and no access to natural light or fresh air is not just cruel but may also be counterproductive. None of the detainees at Guantánamo has yet been convicted of a crime, and many are ultimately likely to be released. Warehousing them in such conditions may have a long-term damaging psychological impact. It could further compound legal problems with attempting to repatriate or bring detainees to justice. (Efforts to put some detainees on trial, as we've covered in Salon over the last several weeks, are buckling under the U.S. government's policies at Guantánamo.) And the ongoing treatment of these detainees over the long term is very likely to breed hatred and resentment of the United States.

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