I also read — for the first of three times that night — a book of poems written by Guantánamo inmates, seeking a sense of what they feel and think. Despite great discomfort, hardship, and fear, some inmates are able to transcend themselves and their situation and find hope, and dreams, and a sort of freedom.
It’s really far worse
My night was only a tiny taste of what the detainees held at Guantánamo experience. The most obvious difference, of course, was that I spent just over seven hours in a replica of a cell sitting in downtown Portland. Many of the inmates have spent more like seven years in real cells in a remote base in Cuba. By comparison, my imprisonment was soft time.
A Portland police officer sat in his patrol car outside, mostly to protect the cell itself and its accompanying gear (a generator, electronic equipment, parts of a disassembled information booth), but I took comfort in his presence, knowing that if any harm befell me, aid would be nearby. The Gitmo detainees have their own uniformed, armed guards, but they are as likely to be their tormentors as their rescuers.
It was mostly dark in my cell, though a few streetlights shined in. Some detainees’ lawyers claim their clients are suffering permanent psychological damage because the lights in their cells have been kept on 24 hours a day for years.
I was warm and not hungry, equipped with a sleeping bag and fortified with a good meal at home before going into the cell; the inmates get blankets if they’re lucky and regularly complain about both the quantity and the quality of food served at Gitmo.
I could control the volume on my iPod (and I confess to skipping a couple songs); the detainees can neither control the volume nor prevent a guard from playing one song over and over for hours on end, as happened on at least one occasion with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” from their 1991 eponymous album.
But the biggest difference, the one that really made it possible for me (a somewhat sane person who functions fairly well in this weird world) to handle my time inside, was this: I knew when I would eventually leave. The men held in Guantánamo don’t. Even those who have been declared not dangerous, not worth holding, whose arrests and incarceration are acknowledged mistakes, are held for months before being finally released. One man, Maher Rafat al-Quwari, has been cleared for release since February 2007, but as a Palestinian with no passport or other national paperwork, he has nowhere to go, so he stays in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement.
Without a future
I thought about what it would take to close the prison. Calls for just that have come from such high Bush administration officials as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and even the president himself, as well as both major-party presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. And yet it remains open, stalled at best by the practical difficulties of moving terrorism suspects into other prisons, or, at worst, held up by people who may not mean what they say.