I. Summary

[I]n 2004 and 2005 we were told that we were innocent, however, we are being incarcerated in jail for the past 6 years until present.  We fail to know why we are still in jail here….  Being away from family, away from our homeland, and also away from the outside world and losing any contact with anyone, also being forbidden from the natural sunlight, natural air, being surrounded with a metal box all around is not suitable for a human being.

—Excerpted from a December 12, 2007, letter by Abdulghappar, a young Uighur man.

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.

—Detainee Huzaifa Parhat’s description of his daily routine, as summarized by his lawyer; Parhat reportedly was deemed eligible for release more than four years ago.

Approximately 270 prisoners remain at Guantanamo, most of whom have been in US custody for more than six years without ever being charged with a crime.  Some 185  of them—including many of the several dozen individuals already cleared for release or transfer—are now being housed in prison facilities akin to and in some respects more restrictive than many “supermax” prisons in the United States.

Such detainees at Guantanamo spend 22 hours a day alone in small cells with little or no natural light or fresh air.  They are allowed out only two hours a day (often at night) to exercise in small outdoor pens.  Except for the occasional visit by an attorney or a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), they have little human interaction with anyone other than interrogators and prison staff.  For many detainees, isolated confinement is not a time-limited punishment for a disciplinary infraction, but something they have faced day in, day out, for months and years.

None of the prisoners currently held at Guantanamo has ever been allowed a visit from a family member, and most of them have never been allowed even to make a single phone call home during the six-plus years they have been detained.  Detainees receive virtually no educational or rehabilitative programming to help them pass the time.

The US government is quick to say that most prisoners at Guantanamo are not technically in solitary confinement because they can yell at each other through the gaps underneath their cell doors; they can talk to one another during recreation time; and they are allowed periodic ICRC and lawyer visits.  The reality, nonetheless, is that these men live in extreme social isolation, cut off from family and friends, and even, to a large extent, from each other.  They spend most of their days alone in totally enclosed cells, with no educational and vocational outlets, and little more than the Koran and a single book to occupy their minds—something that is of little use to those that are illiterate.  As is to be expected, the conditions at Guantanamo have reportedly caused the mental health of many prisoners to deteriorate, as a number of the cases in this report suggest.

As officials at Guantanamo point out, some detainees pose significant security risks, and detainee management is easier when detainees are locked in their cells 22-plus hours a day.  But such extreme and prolonged isolation violates international legal obligations, and can aggravate desperate behavior, potentially creating worse security problems over time.  Should detainee mental health problems mount, as the limited available evidence suggests is already happening, the practice will also complicate ongoing efforts to resettle or repatriate many of these men.

Human Rights Watch continues to press for Guantanamo’s closure, urging the United States to prosecute detainees implicated in crimes in US federal court or under the courts-martial system, and to repatriate or resettle the others.  Nonetheless, the reality is that 270 detainees continue to be held in Guantanamo, some of whom will likely be held there for the near future.

This report provides a physical description of the numbered “camps” in which Guantanamo detainees are being held, documents the inhumane conditions that prevail in many of the camps, and describes what appear to be increasingly frequent complaints of mental health deterioration voiced by detainees and their attorneys.  The report is based on interviews with government officials and attorneys, and the cleared notes of meetings with detainees that attorneys were able to share with Human Rights Watch.  (The Department of Defense does not allow any outsiders—including journalists and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, with the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose interviews are strictly confidential—to speak directly or by phone or email with any of the detainees still held at Guantanamo.  In most cases, it has also prohibited attorneys from bringing in outside psychiatrists to evaluate the mental health of their clients, forcing attorneys to rely on “proxy” evaluations using a psychiatrist-developed and attorney-administered questionnaire.  Given the lack of access, attorney reports of client conversations and proxy psychiatric exams provide the only available information about particular detainees’ experiences and states of mind.)

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Among the roughly 185 individuals at Guantanamo currently housed in supermaximum-security conditions are the following:

  • A young Palestinian who has reportedly grown increasingly lethargic, listless, distracted, and incoherent after being transferred to a high-security unit over a year ago.  He continues to be housed in this unit, even after having been cleared to leave Guantanamo in February 2008.
  • A group of ethnic Chinese Uighurs, all of whom have been cleared for release but cannot be sent back home to China due to credible fears that they will be tortured.  In April 2008 the US government eased their restrictions slightly, moving them to their own wing of the maximum-security facility where they reportedly keep the meal slots open in their doors so they can talk without yelling, provided additional recreation hours, and allowed them to exercise in groups of two; still, they spend the vast majority of the day locked in their windowless concrete cells.
  • An Algerian who has been reportedly cleared to leave Guantanamo for over a year.  He has told his lawyers, “It seems that I am buried in my grave.”
  • A Bosnian-Algerian who has reportedly become psychotic during the more than two years that he has been held in virtually totally isolation.  He continues to be housed in one of the most-restrictive units at Guantanamo, totally cut off from all contact with other detainees.
  • An Uzbek man confined to a wheelchair who cannot be returned to Uzbekistan because of credible fears that he will be tortured if returned, and whom the US is actively trying to resettle.
  • A now-21-year-old Chadian who has been in Guantanamo since the age of 15, who has reportedly been subjected to racial harassment, and who has attempted to commit suicide at least seven times.
  • A 33-year-old Palestinian cleared to leave Guantanamo over two years ago who suffers from a worsening skin disease and appears to be slipping further into a state of depression.
  • A 23-year-old Afghan, Mohammad Jawad, who has been in Guantanamo since he was 17.  Jawad is charged with attempted murder before the military commissions.  His lawyers claim he is so mentally unstable that he cannot assist in his own defense.
  • Salim Hamdan, a 37-year-old Yemeni, slated to be the first person tried before a military commission at Guantanamo, who has formally challenged the conditions of his confinement in military commission court filings.  His lawyers state that he is so distraught over his living conditions that he often wants to discuss nothing else, and is no longer able to make competent decisions about his trial.

The US government insists that the harsh conditions that exist at Guantanamo are necessary and legitimate.  US 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 Guantanamo, they do not justify Guantanamo’s unprecedented restrictions.  As already noted, conditions in the high-security units at Guantanamo are in some ways more draconian than those of many “supermax” prisons in the United States, which hold the country’s most dangerous convicted criminals, including convicted terrorists.  For example, prisoners at ADX-Florence, the country’s federal supermaximum-security prison, are allowed one to two phone calls per month to family members and friends, as well as monthly in-person visits.  They also have televisions in their cells, which are used to broadcast educational and religious programming.

The military command at Guantanamo, Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), has acknowledged the need to give detainees subject to long-term detention additional stimuli and social opportunities.  To its credit, approximately a year and a half ago, JTF-GTMO began allowing detainees to make phone calls home in the case of the death of a loved one; and in March the Department of Defense announced plans to allow detainees to make one phone call home a year.  As of early June, some 40 detainees have been granted phone calls under this new program; and the military has set a goal of scheduling six calls a week, which will ultimately allow detainees to make two phone calls a year.

In addition, military officials at Guantanamo have told Human Rights Watch that they plan to make several other changes in the near future, including providing language classes for all detainees, expanding recreation areas, allowing more group recreation, and permitting greater numbers of detainees to leave their cells and spend the day in areas where they can congregate jointly.

These reforms are needed.  Detainees should—to the extent possible and consistent with safety concerns—be moved into communal living situations where they can interact with each other and participate in educational and group recreational opportunities.  They should also be allowed to reconnect with the loved ones to whom they may ultimately return.

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, it may be counterproductive.  None of the detainees at Guantanamo has yet been convicted of a crime.  Many will ultimately be released.  It is unwise and short-sighted to warehouse them in conditions that may have a damaging psychological impact, and are very likely to breed hatred and resentment of the United States over the long term.