Reporter's Notebook: Inside Gitmo

Before going inside the wire at Guantanamo Bay (search) I paused to shake a soldier's hand, but the name on his uniform was covered by a piece of duct tape.

I was told to remove my ID badge and to use no names. The guards also wore blue surgical gloves. I thought this was out of fear of AIDS (search), but I was wrong.

"They don't want us to touch them," the guard said, making a shrugging motion away, in imitation of a detainee. They think unbelievers are unclean, I thought to myself.

The first detainee I saw was in the backseat of a small green all-terrain vehicle. He was facing backward, alongside one soldier, with two more in the front. The soldiers were in green uniforms. The detainee was in an orange jumpsuit with a foot-long brown beard. The contrast was striking.

I was taken into occupied camps where non-compliant detainees were kept. The officers told me I was the first journalist to go inside. The access was due to work by FOX Pentagon correspondent Bret Baier (search).

[Editor's Note: The military has since checked their logs and now says this was actually the third visit by a journalist to the restricted cellblock for non-compliant detainees.]

From the steps of the cellblock I saw the first detainee. He was low down, beneath me, looking up against a tight metal grill. Through the small holes I could see his face, his teeth, his brown eyes. He greeted me softly with a word in Arabic. My first reaction was pity. He was looking for human contact. Then I thought maybe he was there because he killed, or tried to kill, Americans. I was not sure how to react. I looked away.

I've been in a number of prisons in different countries but I have never seen such security. Without going into detail, what came to mind was the opening of the old TV series "Get Smart," where one set of doors would close before another set would open.

I walked slowly through the block, looking inside at the detainees on my left and my right. The cells were small — about 6 by 6 by 8 — it took two steps to pass each one.

There were several restrictions placed on my access, due to security concerns. I was not allowed to bring in a camera or to visibly take notes. There was concern that the presence of a reporter could stir up the detainees. If there were any violence I would be escorted out immediately. One officer warned me not to get into any staring contests with the detainees.

Each cell was a self-contained unit — a metal slab about three feet off the ground, connected to one wall and covered with a thin mat which served as the bed, a toilet hole with foot holders on the floor and a sink alongside that.

It was mid-day, warm but not stifling. Both sides of the block opened out into the camp so air moved through the grates. The floor was also metal. There were small Xs in some spots on the floor. I was told guards marked spots that squeaked to know where to avoid stepping at night to wake detainees.

I tried to imagine what I would do if I were in a cell. They were all men, most bearded, many speaking Arabic, many seemed to be in their 30s, a few older. Some lay on their slabs, shirtless, with faces covered from the light by a sheet or a shirt. One paced, a few sat on the ground. One toilet was covered by a mat — for privacy when defecating the detainees will often wrap their mat around them.

There are different levels of detention at Gitmo, with different rights given to the detainees. The guards say it depends on compliance. The least compliant wear the orange jumpsuits; the most compliant wear white. Those in the middle wear tan. The guards say detainees can work their way up or down depending on their behavior. Most are in white or tan; the hard-core non-compliant detainees in orange number about 15 percent of a population officers say is roughly 520.

A common complaint of the military here is that what they see on TV is often video taken from Camp X-Ray, a primitive camp set up immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks that has not been used in three years. In my opinion they bear part of the blame for this. It has been difficult, or impossible, to get current video of detainees, so most news channels will run what they have on file.

The old Camp X-Ray is now rotting in a swamp, taken over by marsupials known locally as banana rats. It must have been a miserable place when in use, basic cages in the sun. The latest prison built at Gitmo, Camp No. 5, has doors controlled by computer touch screens.

In the compliant camp, where they wear white, there is communal living, which is seen as a plus by the detainees … about eight bunks together in a large room. They eat together out on benches, distribute the food themselves and clean up. They get recreation time in a large yard and play soccer, pingpong, run, or walk around.

In the non-compliant camps recreation time is less and the area is just a slightly larger cage to move around in. I saw one guy in the small rec cage just sitting on the ground against the cage. He looked like an old tired animal in a zoo.

Comfort items like shoes and prayer mats get better at each stage of compliance. Everyone gets a Koran and they keep them off the ground, tied to the cell grate in a surgical mask, to avoid a guard touching it by mistake. After all the controversy only certain personnel can touch a Koran and they follow a lengthy procedure before doing so.

The showers are also outside, behind a metal cage with a lock. There is a careful procedure of escorting the prisoners that I saw in effect everywhere. There seems to be a procedure for everything.

I asked the guards if they ever felt pity for or anger at the prisoners. They said they don't know who is there for what and that if they thought about vengeance they could not do their jobs. They say they have been hurt by media coverage — that friends and family have asked them what the heck they were doing to people at Gitmo.

Prisoners have some unique ways of getting back at their captors. Some throw feces, urine or semen at guards. And some, according to one guard, spread their arms like an airplane, shout "9/11, 9/11" then go "Boom" and laugh.

Steve Harrigan has served as war correspondent for the network since 2001.