GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Seeking to ease conditions for angry and frustrated detainees, the commander of Guantanamo's prison camps has instituted language classes and a literacy program, plans humanities courses and wants to open communal areas for men now held in isolation 22 hours a day.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Army Col. Bruce Vargo said he hopes the changes will lead to fewer attacks on guards by the 275 prisoners suspected of links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
"Make no bones about it, these are very dangerous men," Vargo said, citing incidents in which detainees splashed guards with bodily fluids, and head-butted, kicked and bit them. "But at the same time, you have to provide them with some type of out."
The makeover represents a policy reversal on the isolated base, where facilities were hardened to maximum-security and communal living areas were eliminated in 2006 after a guard-detainee clash and the suicides of three detainees.
Attorneys for detainees say the assaults are triggered partly by frustration among men who, more often than not, were captured far from any battlefield and have been locked up for as much as six years with no real chance to confront accusations that they are enemy combatants.
David Remes of Washington, who represents 16 Guantanamo detainees, said the military must improve its treatment of detainees and not simply justify minor changes by saying they are aimed at reducing assaults. He said most detainees are in virtual solitary confinement, reportedly leading to mental problems.
Vargo, who commands the military's Joint Detention Group at Guantanamo, says it is important to give the detainees more to look forward to each day.
Some of the best-behaved detainees now get TV night, with DVDs of movies and TV shows shown on a high-definition Sony TV. A classroom in Camp 4, designated for the most compliant detainees, has metal desks and plastic chairs, although detainees remain shackled by the leg to the floor in class.
Language courses have begun in English, Arabic and Pashto, Vargo said in the interview last week. He intends to soon offer classes on subjects as diverse as oceanography.
"If we can get them to focus on humanities programs, if we can get them to focus on recreation, then their sole focus is not going to be on the guard force," Vargo said. "It is my thought that if they are focused on those things, then the level of assaults and things of that nature will go down."
Soldiers escorted AP journalists inside the coils of barbed wire at Camp 4, where five detainees in loose-fitting white shirts and pants sat at tables, sharing a rice dish outside their communal living area. On the other side of a chain-link fence, a bored guard watched the men from the shade of a plastic tarp. White and tan prison uniforms, freshly washed by the detainees, hung along the fence, drying in the winter sun. Guantanamo rules prohibit journalists from talking to detainees.
"I have instituted a very strict vetting program to get into Camp 4," Vargo said. "If you abide by the rules and you get through the vetting program then we move you in there."
Living conditions in Camps 5 and 6 are far stricter. Detainees are isolated up to 22 hours a day in individual cells.
Vargo said he wants to make Camp 6 more like Camp 4, and has mock-ups of modifications that will allow detainees to use indoor communal areas. He wants to keep guards separate from the detainees but still enable them to check on each prisoner every three minutes to prevent suicides.
"We're doing something that is probably different in that this is a high-security detention facility with the amenities of a lower security facility," Vargo said. "That's what I'm trying to achieve."
Zachary Katznelson, an attorney representing detainees, said he welcomes planned changes.
"Right now the men in Camp 6 sit in steel boxes without windows for at least 22 hours a day," he said. "They have no mental stimulation, nothing to do.
"But the real issue remains the fact that the men are being held without charge or trial. English lessons do not equal a return to American values like due process. It's just putting lipstick on a pig."
Lawyer Sabin Willett said the military should completely shut down camps 5 and 6.
"Putting people in the central bomb silo of those tombs so that they can talk to each other is marginally better, but still insane," he said.