What Really Happens at Guantanamo Bay, from Waterboarding to Pizza Hut

The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon left America reeling, its citizens searching for answers. The lengths to which authorities went for retribution in the wake of the national tragedy didn't matter to many Americans, who felt no cost was too high to bring the attackers, and any like them, to justice, even if it meant overstepping legal and moral bounds. Enter Guantanamo Bay detention camp (GTMO). 

The Joint Task Force's hastily erected prison at the Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, became a living symbol for America's War on Terror. Hundreds of suspects - guilty and not guilty alike - were rounded up, sent to this new prison operating in a legal gray area, and interrogated using methods both sanctioned and not.

The GTMO stories that emerged during the Bush presidency are harrowing. The United Nations, International Red Cross, and numerous news outlets, including New York Times and BBC, have condemned the tactics used on GTMO prisoners as torture. Some pundits have even called for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld to face trial as war criminals.

Since before he took office, Barak Obama called for closing Guantanamo Bay. During his time in office he has made numerous attempts to shutter the prison once and for all, but as of this writing, the prison remains open. Read on to learn all about the harrowing history of GTMO prison. 

  • Guantanamo Bay, Inside and Out

    Guantanamo Bay, Inside and Out
    Photo: Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Guantanamo Bay, also known as GTMO (colloquially, Gitmo), is the home of the Navy's oldest overseas installation. The base is located about 400 miles from Miami, in the southeastern corner of Cuba. It's 45 square miles of land and water (mostly water) leased from the Cuban government, and houses just over 6000 military personnel. The 17-mile-long fence forming the border of the base is separated from the rest of Cuba by a Cactus Curtain, a thick ring of military-planted cacti and land mines.

    Inside the fence is a highly fortified network of roads, buildings, trailers, airstrips, and, of course, Camp Justice and the sprawling Expeditionary Legal Complex (ELC) - the notorious military prison that was opened in 2002. The base also houses tidy, suburban-style subdivisions, a school, a church, three Subways, a Walmart-style supermarket, an open-air movie theater, and a gym.

    In their off-hours, Guantanamo's military personnel can go snorkeling and scuba diving, or head to a souvenir shop to load up on iguana plush toys, Gitmo-themed shot glasses, or tank tops with slogans like, "It don't GTMO better than this!"

  • Guantanamo Bay Has Housed Almost 800 Prisoners Since the War on Terror Began

    Guantanamo Bay Has Housed Almost 800 Prisoners Since the War on Terror Began
    Photo: Shane T. McCoy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    As of November 2016, GTMO hosts 60 detainees (as they're called in official parlance). Since President Bush started the prison in 2002, it has housed about 780 detainees from at least 21 different countries, and of 50 nationalities. The prison population was down to 242 by the start of Obama's presidency, and he has shrunk that number to 25% its size over the course of his two terms. Only eight detainees of GTMO have been convicted of crimes

  • Detainees Are Held in Seven Camps, Two of Which Have No Natural Light

    Detainees Are Held in Seven Camps, Two of Which Have No Natural Light
    Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Guantanamo's detainees are housed in one of seven camps, numbered 1 through 7. The camps are numbered in the order in which they were built; it is not a tiered security system. All camps but Camp 4 are maximum security. In Camp 4, prisoners can socialize in commons areas and eat together. In all other camps, they're held in solitary. 

    Camp 5 and Camp 6 contain most of GTMO's prisoners as of 2016, and are solid structures assembled of concert and steel, which makes them different from Camps 1 through 4, which were hastily erected of wood, plastic, and fence. Camp 5 is home to a supermax panopticon. 

    Camp 7 is so secret its location is classified and the government denied its existence for almost a decade after it was opened in 2006. It houses only a few prisoners of the highest value to the government, kept under the severest degree of security (9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed allegedly lives here). It's the only prison the US system that doesn't allow prisoners to earn better conditions through good behavior. One prisoner testified that cells in Camp 7 are constantly filled with noise, making it impossible to do anything, even read or sleep. 

    Most of the cells are 9' x 10' concrete boxes with a bed, sink, and toilet. Detainees in Camp 6 have no access to natural light, while those in Camp 5 have frosted windows with limited access to outside light. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, depriving detainees of access to natural light is a violation of UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and American Correctional Association standards

    The prisons are filled with places to connect shackles, from inside the cells to the classrooms and even the recreation and television areas.

  • Daily Life Is Tightly Controlled, Though Compliant Detainees Are Granted Comfort Items

    Daily Life Is Tightly Controlled, Though Compliant Detainees Are Granted Comfort Items
    Photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Dawkins / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    According to an article published in the Los Angeles Times, GTMO detainees are awoken by guards at 5:00 am every day. The single bed sheet they're allotted is taken away at that time; they're not allowed more bedding due to the potential suicide risk it poses.

    Food comes in Styrofoam containers through a slot in the cell door called the "bean hole." Each prisoner gets as many as 4,000 calories a day, and meals can be prepared vegetarian, halal, or in accordance with whatever nutritional requirements a prisoner may have. Prisoners held in Camp 4 eat communally, not alone in their cells. 

    Most detainees are shackled any time they leave their cell, whether being transferred to a different part of the prison or sitting in the common area. The only time they're unshackled is inside their cells or during recreational time, of which they get two hours a day. Those prisoners kept in solitary confinement exercise alone. Lights are kept on 24 hours for security reasons, and prisoners are issued sleep masks for cover (though the original inmates of the prison didn't have this luxury).

    Toilet paper is rationed, and only handed out upon request. Other comfort items granted to those compliant with camp regulations include prayer beads, a pen and paper, a change of clothes, and a mattress for their bed.

  • For 70 Percent of Detainees, Isolation Is So Complete it Drives Them Mad

    For 70 Percent of Detainees, Isolation Is So Complete it Drives Them Mad
    Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    According to a report by the Center for Constitutional Rights, as of 2008, 70% of prisoners in GTMO were in solitary confinement or some other form of isolation. The report starts with a pair of quotes:

    "It's kind of like having their own apartment."
    Camp 6 Guard, Guantánamo Bay Naval Station 1

    "I am in my tomb."
    Abdelli Feghoul, Camp 6 prisoner, cleared for release since at least 2006

    The isolation in Camps 5, 6, and, presumably, 7 (top secret) is so extreme, a federal judge declared it to "press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate."

    One prisoner was so psychologically crippled by isolation he smeared feces all over the walls of his cell, and when asked why, said he had no idea. Another detainee curled up on the floor and shouted under his door to start conversations with other prisoners, though eventually lost his ability to discern whether those responding were real or imagined. 

  • The Rumsfeld Years Were a Horrorshow of Torture

    The Rumsfeld Years Were a Horrorshow of Torture
    Photo: Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons

    During the Donald Rumsfeld years, many GTMO detainees were tortured under the guise of interrogation. Common practices in now-defunct Camp X-Ray included sleep deprivation, leaving detainees in stress positions, subjecting them to extreme temperature variation, and beatings. Other reported abuses include forcing prisoners to drink seawater, noise torture, rectal rehydration (shooting water up someone's ass to painfully swell the intestines), walling (a prisoner is put on a leash, then slammed into a wall using the leash), and waterboarding.

    Waterboarding, which the UN declared an illegal form of torture in 2008, became internationally famous for its usage in Guantanamo. In internal memos, the CIA described how to use "the watering cycle" to obtain information:

    "1) demands for information interspersed with the application of the water just short of blocking his airway 2) escalation of the amount of water applied until it blocked his airway and he started to have involuntary spasms 3) raising the water-board to clear subject’s airway 4) lowering of the water-board and return to demands for information."

    One prisoner was waterboarded 83 times in a single month (nearly three times a day), causing him at one point to become unresponsive. If you think the treatment doesn't sound too bad, check out these videos of people attempting to withstand the treatment.