Published in the Portland Phoenix (with an excerpt in the Boston Phoenix); reprinted in the Orlando Weekly
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.
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 futureI 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.
Maine’s DC delegation is split on the issue: Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic representative Mike Michaud voted for the Military Commissions Act of 2006. [Please see clarification, below.] It recreated a kangaroo-court show-trial system for “trying” detainees in front of military judges (after a nearly identical arrangement created by the Pentagon was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2006), and granted the US government the power to indefinitely imprison anyone — even US citizens — without charging them with a crime, and without ever bringing them before an independent civilian judge. Democratic representative Tom Allen opposed it; Republican senator Olympia Snowe didn’t vote, but later voted to overturn some of its harsher provisions.
And then there was that passerby who spit into my cell. I wondered if his attitude, amplified by the isolation of being stationed at a remote military base, and inflated by being allowed to carry large automatic weapons, might turn him into a rage-filled guard who just might do some of the things prisoners have described.
I wanted to judge him, to accuse him of insensitivity, of sympathizing with those who abuse and torture inmates. But I know as little about that man as we Americans do about the people held at Guantánamo Bay. I don’t know his name, and can tell you only the very basic outline of what he did. Without talking to him, without finding out why he did it, or where inside him that feeling came from, I cannot honestly “convict” him of anything more serious than common rudeness.
He walks free, though, so I’m less worried about him. The men in Guantánamo do not. Whatever they may be suspected of, why they were arrested, has never been made public, nor have the results of any subsequent investigations. Little wonder, then, that they have not been convicted of anything either. Justice has been slow in coming, and for some, may never arrive — at least four of them have committed suicide since the camp opened, and at least 40 of them have attempted it, often repeatedly.
Five others, among the most high-profile ones, appear to be seeking death another way. The morning I left the cell, they went in front of a military judge, in a proceeding that was widely criticized by lawyers and other observers for its departure from common legal standards (such as preventing co-defendants from talking to each other). After they were told what charges were being laid against them for their alleged involvement in the attacks of September 11, 2001, some of them said they wanted to be “martyred,” apparently asking for the death penalty. But like their fellow inmates, they wait.
I did, too. As people walked by throughout the night, some looked in, a few asked me what I was doing; others didn’t seem to notice the cell was even there, much less occupied. It was impossible to know what they thought.
I thought of the young men, some as young as 14, kidnapped from the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and sold to US troops as alleged terrorists for thousands of dollars in reward money, who now sit, as I did, in small cells awaiting the next dawn. And when I became cold, tired, and cramped, I reminded myself that they are enduring worse and suffering more. Their fortitude was a thin, cold comfort, but it gave me strength.
Visions from inside
Inmates’ smuggled words show pain, frustration
I discovered during my time in the cell that it is possible to look for so long at one spot — on the floor, the wall, the ceiling — that the spot actually disappears from view. With enough uninterrupted time — or enough detachment from the brutality of the “real world” — it must be possible to make everything you can see just disappear.
What appears in its place? We know some answers, courtesy of the men held at Guantánamo. They have, with the help of their lawyers, published fragments of poetry shedding light on their thoughts, dreams, and visions.
Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, published last year by the University of Iowa Press, includes 22 poems that made it past the US military’s censors. The one that struck me most deeply, in the middle of the night as I read the poems aloud to myself, was “O Prison Darkness,” by an author identified only by his first name, Abdulaziz. It ends with these lines.
Even though the bands tighten and seem unbreakable,
They will shatter.
Those who persist will attain their goal;
Those who keep knocking shall gain entry.
O crisis, intensify!
The morning is about to break forth.
These were some of the songs I listened to while in the cell. My selections were based on reporting by Spin, Mother Jones, the BBC, the New York Times, Time, Transcultural Music Review, and FBI documents, all of which listed songs or bands played by soldiers at Guantánamo, usually at very high volumes, as a way to break down detainees’ psychological defenses.
“Soldier Like Me (Return of the Soulja),” 2Pac & Eminem, Loyal to the Game, 2004
“Don’t Get Mad, Get Even,” Aerosmith, Pump, 1989
“Dirrty,” Christina Aguilera featuring Redman, Stripped, 2002
“One Eight Seven,” Dr. Dre, Chronicles — Death Row Classics, 2006
“Step Up,” Drowning Pool, Desensitized, 2004
“Bodies,” Drowning Pool, Sinner, 2001
“If I Had,” Eminem, The Slim Shady LP, 1999
“Take a Look Around,” Limp Bizkit, Greatest Hits, 2005
“This Is the New S**t,” Marilyn Manson, Lest We Forget — The Best of Marilyn Manson, 2004
“The Burn,” Matchbox Twenty, Mad Season, 2000
“For Crying Out Loud,” Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell, 1977
“Whiplash (Live),” Metallica, Kill ‘Em All, 2008
“Meow Mix” radio commercial
“Killing in the Name,” Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine, 1992
“Naked in the Rain,” Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 2006
“Sometimes,” Britney Spears, . . . Baby One More Time, 1999
“How Mountain Girls Can Love,” Stanley Brothers, 16 Greatest Hits, 2004
“Walking Man,” James Taylor, Greatest Hits, 1974
“The Star Spangled Banner,” United We Stand, Songs for America, 2001
Clarification: The original version of this story did not fully explain the positions Maine Democratic US Representative Mike Michaud took on the Military Commissions Act of 2006. He voted in favor of the bill as it was introduced in the US House of Representatives, but in a subsequent vote changed his mind and opposed it.