First thing in the morning, a man stopped at my door, leaned in, looked me square in the eye, called me “a piece of shit,” and spat on my floor. I tried not to take it personally.
I was in a prison cell and wearing a day-glo-orange inmate’s jumpsuit, sitting on a thin mat, where I had sat and slept intermittently — and uncomfortably — through the preceding seven hours.
Amnesty International brought the cell to Portland’s Monument Square and arranged several days of events about the offshore prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, last week to draw attention to the 270 or so inmates still held there, and to highlight the support of some of Maine’s congressional delegation for suspending the legal rights of inmates there, most of whom have never been charged with any crime.
I’d volunteered to spend the night in the replica cell (which is modeled on the ones at Gitmo, which are very like the standard isolation units used in US “supermax” prisons) because we’ve all heard stories about unlivable conditions at Gitmo but can’t come close to imagining what it must be like to live for as long as seven years in a small box with little contact with the outside world, and even less hope of release. I hoped my few hours of simulated incarceration — even without the alleged abuse visited on Gitmo “detainees” by US service personnel — would help me appreciate the nightmare those prisoners endure.
When I first entered the cell, I sized things up. I could take three normal-size steps from side to side, four from the door to the bed; a “lap” around it involved 12 reasonably normal-sized steps. With my arms outstretched to the sides, I could touch the walls; reaching up, I could touch the ceiling with my stocking feet flat on the floor. Lying on the raised platform that served as my bed, my head touched one wall and my feet pressed against the other. The walls and ceiling were white; the toilet/sink fixture by the door was stainless steel; the floor was gray. There was one small window — easily covered by my forearm — by the bed and another in the door.
I was already in the jumpsuit, so I sat on the thin sleeping mat, got out my iPod, put in the earbuds, selected the “Gitmo” playlist, and turned the volume up. (The guards play a wide selection of American music — though mostly dark heavy stuff like Drowning Pool and Marilyn Manson — at high volume, at all hours, as a form of psychological torture for the prisoners.)
I read from the Koran, opening it at random and finding the 36th sûrah (chapter), entitled “Yâ Sîn,” or “O Man.” According to the annotation in my copy, that chapter is often recited by Muslims at times of adversity, to sustain their faith. At one point in the text, a group of believers approaches a city of non-believers to try to convert them: “(The people of the city) said: we augur ill of you. If ye desist not, we shall surely stone you, and grievous torture will befall you at our hands.” But, Allah explains through the prophet Mohammed, whatever suffering his followers must endure will be relieved if they stick to their faith, while those who did the torturing will be condemned to burn in hell. After a few readings, I found my hope rising and my discomfort decreasing, even though I am not a Muslim.
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.