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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. 

  • 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

    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.

  • GTMO Was Designed to Be 'the Legal Equivalent of Outer Space'

    Photo: Christopher Vann / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the main reasons prisoners in Guantanamo were taken there (as opposed to, say, a prison in America) is, well, the government can basically do whatever it wants with them. A prisoner brought to the United States must be tried at some point, and thereby afforded rights provided by the Constitution (at least in theory). If you keep a prisoner at a black site and deny them access to counsel, representation, or contact with the outside world... you do the math. 

    Gitmo operates in a legal gray area (according to Rolling Stone, the Bush administration engineered the prison to be "the legal equivalent of outer space") under the auspices of a battlefield courtroom; it's prisoners are considered enemy combatants. As of October 2016, 30 prisoners at GTMO were being held indefinitely, without charge or any plans of a trial. These prisoners are considered too high-value to try, on the off chance they get acquitted somehow.

    If a detainee manages to get to trial - as 10 have - the rules stipulate that "Your right to counsel does not include, according to case law, a 'meaningful relationship' between yourself and your counsel – you don't have to like them." The defense, the prosecution, and the judge will all be Joint Task Force appointees and have little-to-no experience with this historically unprecedented situation.

  • Prisoners Have Staged Hunger Strikes, and Are Brutally Force Fed If They Get Too Thin

    Photo: Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When all of your legal power has been taken from you, what recourse do you have to stand up for your rights?

    One approach taken by GTMO detainees is hunger strike. In 2013, a widespread hunger strike was taken up by 100 of 166 detainees, or 60% percent of the population. Prisoners dying on your watch does not look good for a country that claims to be a leader in human rights, so the prison has, on occasion, heard prisoners out.

    Far more frequently, however, the staff's response to hunger strikes is force-feeding prisoners if their body weight drops below certain levels. Force-feeding is a brutal, humiliating process many humanitarian and medical groups classify as torture. Prisoners are strapped down to chairs and Ensure beverages are poured down their throats. Other options include intravenous fluids, nasal feedings, and now-outlawed rectal feeding, which is exactly what it sounds like.

    In a bizarre twist, during Ramadan, those on hunger striker were force fed at night out of respect for the practice of fasting during daylight hours.