The Least Worst Place

Colin Dayan

  • Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons by Clive Stafford Smith
    Weidenfeld, 307 pp, £16.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 297 85221 6

Shackles, dogs, humiliating acts, forced positions and ‘restraint chairs’, 23-hour lockdown, permanent solitary confinement. This catalogue of cruel and degrading treatment is now the fate not only of those held in ‘supermax’ prisons in the United States, but also of the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. The language used to describe those in custody within the US anticipated the labels used for those offshore at Guantánamo: they are ‘the worst of the worst’, ‘incorrigibles’, ‘bad men’. They are given tags that seem intended to justify their loss of due process rights: ‘security threat groups’ (alleged gangs) in US prisons; ‘illegal enemy combatants’ (alleged terrorists) in the camps at Guantánamo. More unsettling are the claims made not only by those who run supermaxes but by army doctors, the Pentagon, White House lawyers, the Department of Justice and the president of the United States: ‘We do not torture.’ ‘Our practices are humane.’ ‘The United States operates a safe, humane and professional detention operation at Guantánamo.’

At Pelican Bay State Prison in California, correctional officers scalded an inmate so severely that the skin peeled off his legs. ‘Looks like we’re going to have a white boy before this is through,’ one officer joked. Given the cost of building supermaxes, an official in Arizona suggested: ‘Why don’t we just freeze-dry ’em?’ In a Special Security Unit there, another officer showed me a sign set above photos of prisoners who had mutilated themselves – row after row of slit wrists, first-degree burns, punctured faces, bodies smeared with faeces, eyes pouring blood. It read: ‘Idle Minds Make for Busy Hands.’

Building places to put criminals has become an extremely lucrative business. Even before the ‘war on terror’, which uses the label ‘terrorist’ to incarcerate ever greater numbers in the name of security, prisons in the United States had become a growth industry. In the late 1990s, investors bought a great deal of stock in prisons, especially in the Corrections Corporation of America. In 1997, Barron’s reminded readers who might balk at profiting from the warehousing of prisoners: ‘Stock prices will be largely immune to news of inflation . . . Paradoxically, and almost perversely, bad news, like a rise in the crime rate, will goose these industry’s stocks.’ Mandatory sentencing, the ‘war on drugs’, ‘three strikes and you’re out’ and juvenile detention ensured a continuous flow of prisoners, incarcerated for ever longer periods of time.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that correctional officers from state prisons were asked to restructure and reform the prisons in Iraq, including Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib, both condemned by Major-General Antonio Taguba as the sites of ‘egregious acts and grave breaches of international law’. Or that Terry Stewart, the former director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, who began the now prohibited practice of ‘dog frights’ in the supermaxes, not only led the Iraq team appointed by the State Department in May and June 2003, but made a brief visit to Haiti after the overthrow of Aristide to oversee prison reform there. As Stewart (who at the time was running a security consulting firm in Phoenix called Advanced Correctional Management) put it: ‘We need some place to put the criminals if we are going to have a civil society.’

The supermaxes’ use of severe sensory deprivation and enforced idleness has been condemned since the 1980s by the United Nations Committee against Torture, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Those who are labelled as threats to ‘the safe, secure and efficient operation of prison institutions’ can be punished with indefinite solitary confinement and 23-hour lockdowns. Such prisoners are given no vocational training or education, and are allowed no personal property, not even photos or magazines. All this is seen as justifiable when institutional security is the goal. There is a new trend in the US in the treatment of those condemned to death. In Arizona and Texas, death row has recently been moved from older, more open facilities to supermaxes, even though none of the inmates in either state’s death row had exhibited threatening behaviour. As one of them told me: ‘We are dead twice over, killed in our mind, tortured as we await the death of our bodies.’

Imagine what it would be like to have worked for more than twenty years, as Clive Stafford Smith has, defending death-row inmates in the American South, only to find oneself in Guantánamo, what the military calls ‘the least worst place’, trying to win the trust of men who have not even been put on trial, who have not been accused of anything, but remain condemned to torture and abuse, with no end in sight. Imagine witnessing the results of coercion – bruises, maiming and scars – far worse than anything seen in the worst holds of the US prison system. Imagine then being told that this evidence of torture, and the psychological trauma that accompanies such ill-treatment, is merely the result of ‘mild non-injurious physical contact’, of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.

Stafford Smith began visiting clients at Guantánamo in November 2004. Most of them had been kidnapped illegally, tortured in secret and kept incommunicado. Now, though restricted somewhat by US censors, he has written a remarkable and passionate book. In Bad Men: Guantánamo Bay and the Secret Prisons, in plain style, and with impeccable tact, he reveals much that has been continuously and shamefully ignored. Against a backdrop of cacti, iguanas, banana rats, sand and razor wire, Stafford Smith presents the human faces of the ‘bad men’ held in Camp X-Ray (now closed), Camp Iguana, Camp Delta, Camp Echo, Camp V and the new $37 million supermax, Camp VI. Though army officials persistently get the prisoners’ names wrong, lose track of where they come from, and seem indifferent to their ages or the nature of their alleged terrorist activities, Stafford Smith amasses detail after detail to counter the generalised anonymity of the ‘detainees’, whom he correctly identifies as ‘prisoners’.

Stafford Smith begins with his curiously relaxed flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Guantánamo, a place that has been used for some terrible things since the US acquired a perpetual lease on the area in 1903, intending to use it as a naval and coaling station. In November 1991, for example, about three hundred Haitian men, women and children were imprisoned there. Fenced in, guarded by marines armed with machine-guns, they lived surrounded by vermin in tin-roofed huts, and were subject to pre-dawn raids by as many as four hundred soldiers in full riot gear. These Haitians were prisoners in the world’s first and only detention camp for ‘refugees’ with HIV.

The harsh treatment of aliens labelled as ‘illegal enemy combatants’ by the Bush administration – some boys as young as 13 – has been the subject of numerous articles and books. But in Bad Men Stafford Smith achieves something unprecedented. He lets the facts speak, and the result is riveting.

A series of failed suicide attempts (classified by the military as ‘manipulative self-injurious behaviour’) and mass hunger strikes have taken place in Guantánamo. The first hunger strike began in February 2002, just over a month after the first prisoners arrived there, shackled hand and foot, hooded and blindfolded by blacked-out goggles. Stafford Smith’s description of a hunger strike that began on 6 July 2005, ending briefly only to start again on 11 August, is harrowing. In a parody of medical care, and in violation of the Tokyo prohibition against force feeding, army doctors fed prisoners by means of tubes pushed up their nostrils and down into their stomachs. They called this ‘intensified assisted feeding’. Dr John Edmondson, the commander of the US Naval Hospital at Guantánamo at the time, swore an affidavit saying: ‘The actual feeding process, both at the detention hospital and on the cell block, is very voluntary.’ (Edmondson left Guantánamo early in 2006. On his departure he was awarded a Legion of Merit Medal. The citation read: ‘Captain Edmondson’s inspiring leadership and exemplary performance significantly improved the quality of healthcare for residents of Guantánamo Bay.’)

In December 2005, the number of hunger strikes dropped after mobile restraint chairs (called ‘torture chairs’ by the prisoners) were introduced. Stafford Smith tells us that ‘they looked rather like an updated electric chair.’ As well as straps for the prisoner’s arms and legs, ‘the Guantánamo chairs had been modified to add two additional straps for the head and the chest.’ Instead of keeping the feeding tube in a hunger striker, a soldier now forced it into him twice a day, before each feeding, and afterwards pulled it out and walked away dragging all 43 inches of tube behind him. ‘When the torture chair operations began, there were roughly two dozen prisoners who had been on strike for five months . . . Within days the number dropped to six.’ Stafford Smith quotes General Bantz Craddock: ‘Pretty soon it wasn’t convenient, and they decided it wasn’t worth it . . . A lot of the detainees said: “I don’t want to put up with this. This is too much of a hassle.”’

On 10 June 2006, three prisoners committed suicide. Stafford Smith was desperate to know whether any of them were his clients. It took him months to find out they weren’t. Rear Admiral Harry Harris, who is in charge of Guantánamo Bay, described these suicides as an ‘asymmetrical act of war’, and Colleen Graffy, a spokesperson for the secretary of state for public diplomacy, said they were ‘a good PR move to draw attention’. Stafford Smith, however, puts these hunger strikers in the context of Bobby Sands (although, rather than utter secrecy, there was extensive media coverage of the IRA men’s actions). The protests at Guantánamo recently inspired hunger strikes by six death-row inmates at a Texas supermax. ‘Either conditions will improve, or we will starve to death,’ insisted Steven Woods, one of the prisoners.

The New York Times reported that the lawyers of those involved in yet another hunger strike that began at Guantánamo this April noted the desperation of clients who had been moved to the new supermax, Camp VI, built by a Halliburton subsidiary as part of a $500 million Pentagon contract for emergency construction worldwide. ‘My wish is to die,’ Adnan Farhan Abdullatif told his lawyer. Stafford Smith gives us a context for such statements. Shaker Aamer was one of the leaders of the hunger strike that began in July 2005. Placed in total isolation in Camp Echo, he asked Stafford Smith to take down his words. ‘I am dying here every day . . . Mentally and physically, this is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of this ocean for four years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water here in Camp Echo, I have decided to hurry up a process that is going to happen anyway.’ His wife and four children are British, but the British government will do nothing for him since he is merely a legal resident of the UK.

There are roughly 380 prisoners left in Guantánamo, but recent figures put the number of ghost detainees in secret American detention centres around the world at 13,600. Stafford Smith leaves us in no doubt that the regime of secrecy, indefinite detention and torture can easily be extended to anyone deemed a ‘threat’ to the US. Indeed, it already has been: witness the treatment of Yasser Hamdi and José Padilla (two American citizens who are Muslims). For now at least, the targets are the weak, and the racially and religiously suspect.

Stafford Smith does not explicitly condemn the theorising of academics such as Alan Dershowitz or Michael Levin, but he implies that their rationalisations of torture may have helped to legitimate its use. Indeed, in urging his readers to link the armchair explanations of professors and policy-makers to the silence or racist abuse of soldiers and prison officers, he manages to draw our attention to the possibility that ‘humane’ or ‘rational’ excuses for torture might have contributed to the current feeling in the US administration that such treatment can be admissible.

The story Stafford Smith tells is ultimately legal, not just political. How can you defend clients when, in the name of ‘security’, government censors hold onto the transcripts of your interviews with them for months before releasing them? How do you gain the trust of clients who have been tortured and are now desperately fearful of anyone associated with the United States? Stafford Smith was one of the two lawyers who began litigation in Rasul v. Bush in February 2002; more than two years later this led to the Supreme Court granting prisoners at Guantánamo habeas corpus protection. He has continued to track and expose the Washington authorities’ erosion of due process and the destruction of the rule of law.

The Military Commissions Act (MCA), passed by Congress on 17 October 2006, has made it much harder for Stafford Smith to defend his clients. According to him the MCA has ‘rolled back . . . four years of the litigation to obtain legal visits for the prisoners’. It also undermines Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (March 2006), which had declared Bush’s military tribunals illegal under US law, the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A critical part of the majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens with a concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy, had focused on Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which the court upheld as applying to Guantánamo prisoners and enforceable in a federal court. It had emphasised that a ‘regularly constituted court’ had to be available, ‘affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognised as indispensable by civilised peoples’, and that treatment (conditions of confinement as well as interrogation procedures) must not be inhumane, ‘humiliating’ or ‘degrading.’ All of this has been swept away. Now, a few al-Qaida suspects will be tried before new military tribunals, but neither they nor the court will be told who their accusers are or how they came to make their charges. Incriminating statements can be introduced through hearsay testimony, and defendants will not be able to confront prosecution witnesses. Most shocking of all, the act eliminates the constitutional right of habeas corpus, stripping all courts of the jurisdiction to hear the hundreds of cases now in train which challenge the arbitrary detention, torture and abuse of prisoners.

On 19 April, the Department of Justice asked the US District Court for the District of Columbia to dismiss all pending habeas corpus cases concerning Guantánamo detainees. In Boumediene v. Bush, the federal appeals court in Washington upheld the constitutionality of the MCA, and stripped federal judges of the authority to review foreign prisoners’ challenges to their detention, directing that all such cases be dismissed. The Supreme Court has just agreed to overturn its earlier refusal to hear such cases, but the Justice Department continues to pursue its relentless attack on the detainees’ basic right to challenge the legality of their imprisonment. But the brunt of the White House assault is directed at the lawyers who have fought for their clients’ due process rights, and their sanity. Although the Justice Department has withdrawn its proposed three-visit limit for meetings with counsel, it continues to press for other restrictions, including the monitoring of attorney-client mail and the denial of access by lawyers to secret evidence used against detainees by military panels. The prisoners know that their hope of anything like justice has been dashed. Sceptical and suspicious, some are refusing to meet their lawyers. The mistrust that Stafford Smith noted on his first visits has returned, quite possibly for good.

Shaker Aamer wrote this in his diary during the July 2005 hunger strike:

They try to do their best to destroy me mentally to stop my hunger strike. They come to clean the cell in the middle of the night and make strange noises just outside my cell door. This is all in the name of ‘checking up on me’ and ‘making sure I am all right’. I swear I have never seen such a devilish way of thinking as they seem to have. Sometimes I really stop to wonder whether they are human beings.

Men like Aamer, whom soldiers and interrogators call ‘animals’ or ‘dogs’, continue to write and think under conditions that test the limits of what can be endured. We need to think again about who the animals are here.