Ben Fox / Associated Press – 2010-07-09 20:56:49
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (July 2, 2010) — More prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are sharing meals and recreation time with fellow inmates — an easing of conditions that has led to fewer assaults against guards at the US base in Cuba, the new commander said Friday.
Nearly 160 prisoners have been shifted into a communal living setting instead of spending most of the day confined alone in solid-wall cells, Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
As a result, there have been only about 60 cases of prisoners assaulting guards in the first seven months of the year, compared to more than 1,000 for all of 2009, added Harbeson, who is completing his first week as head of the military task force that runs the prison.
“We think it has worked out well for the detainees and we think it’s worked out for the guard force,” the admiral said in one of his first interviews since taking over command from Rear Adm. Thomas Copeman.
Harbeson said 88 percent of the 181 prisoners are now living in two camps that allow detainees to eat together and congregate freely. In January, about 75 percent were in communal living, while in previous years a majority of detainees were held in single-person cells because of security fears.
The military defines assaults broadly, including such things as spitting or hurling bodily fluids. Tensions got so high in the past that guards typically wore plastic face shields and other protective gear while interacting with the prisoners. At the same time, lawyers for the men and human rights groups complained that troops routinely used excessive force to remove detainees from their cells and said the harsh isolation was driving men insane.
U.S. officials have denied the isolation was psychologically damaging and dismissed allegations of excessive force â€” Harbeson said there hasn’t been a confirmed case of a guard mistreating a detainee since February 2004. But the military nonetheless took steps to improve living conditions at the prison that President Barack Obama has vowed to close.
The prisoners in the two communal camps have up to 20 hours of recreation a day instead of two hours and they have more access to TV, movies and classes. The remainder are in three other camps with fewer privileges.
Harbeson said he has not yet decided whether he will make additional changes to the living conditions.
“I didn’t come here with an agenda to change anything in particular,” he said in the phone interview from the base.
David Remes, an attorney for 17 men, agreed that conditions have improved.
“For most of the men the conditions are now fairly humane, considering that they’ve been there over eight years without charge and no justification for their detention,” said Remes, who was last at Guantanamo in mid-June.
Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei, part of a team from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights that represents five prisoners, said those held in the non-communal camps, usually for disciplinary reasons, still face harsh isolation. She said that the prisoners are also frustrated by the slow pace of repatriating those already cleared for release.
“I think the hardest thing right now is just the continuing indefinite nature of it, just the feeling of thinking you are going to get out and Guantanamo is going to close and then having that repeatedly dashed because of political developments,” said Kebriaei, who was also at the base in June.
The prison opened after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hold men suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Obama had pledged shortly after his inauguration in January 2009 to close the prison — though not the base on Cuban territory — within a year. But the effort has stalled because Congress will not agree to moving prisoners to the US to face trial or continued detention. Harbeson said he has received no word on when the prison will close but said the process could be completed within months of such an order.
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