Life in camp: art class for some, solitary confinement for others

A sign above the main gates of Guantanamo's prison camps warns visiting members of the public not to wear "bright orange clothing".

The open steel cages and shackles of Camp X-Ray may have been consigned to history but visitors to the replacement detention camps at the US naval base in Cuba are reminded that the US Government can turn back the clock at a moment's notice.

The orange jumpsuit, which has become synonymous with torture and extraordinary rendition, remains part of the colour-coded uniform for the detainees and is reserved for the hardline men of Guantanamo who refuse to comply with the rules.

A media spokesman for Guantanamo explains: "You don't want to be mistaken for a detainee who might be wearing orange, that's for sure."

Admiral Jeffrey Harbeson, the 10th commander of the prison camps, acknowledges that there are a small number of detainees who are held in much tougher conditions in different prisons around the bay.

Some of these detainees protest at their treatment by taking part in hunger strikes and their lawyers still complain they are not given proper access to these clients.

Admiral Harbeson says that while relations between camp commanders and inmates have improved in the last two years, there are still regular assaults on his guards. "We had a recent incident where a detainee threw a bag of faeces on troopers. The man and woman did not do anything, maintained the highest standards and they went right back on the watch. That's remarkable to take that type of abuse."

There are seven prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, each built close to the shore of the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. The detainees can hear the sea but they can never see it.

Those prisoners who continue to resist the authority of Admiral Harbeson and his prison commanders are placed in maximum security camps numbered one, two, three and five. Camp seven is reserved for the most "high value" detainees who still pose a risk to security or are believed to be withholding intelligence. The whereabouts of this camp is unknown.

Of the regime Admiral Harbeson says: "There are camp rules and there are those who choose not to comply with those rules. There are some who choose by their behaviour where they want to live. So do we have some issues with assaults on the guards. We have some of that, yes."

For the worst types of security breaches, the Guantanamo camp retains a guards unit known as the Emergency Reaction Force. These are baton-armed soldiers and sailors heavily kitted out in body armour who charge into a cell to quell a detainee's resistance. In the past, the Emergency Reaction Force teams have been accused of taking part in savage beatings and pepper-spraying incidents.

Nevertheless, the man in charge of Guantnamo's Joint Task Force says that the majority of the 176 held at Guantanamo are "highly compliant" and live in a communal environment at peace with their guards. They associate in communal conditions in camps four and six, collectively known as Camp Delta.

Here they live in open barracks freely mixing with each other. They enjoy up to 20 hours of free association where they can take part in a range of recreational activities including basketball and football.

Privileges include television (even Al Jazeera), art classes, access to the library and a wide range of meal options.

Admiral Harbeson says that one of the most popular privileges this year was the screening of the world cup in South Africa. For reasons of cultural sensitivity it was not shown live.

"It was extremely popular, we taped it and then showed it to them. We wanted to scrub it for anything offensive to any religions," the admiral explains.

"In camp four, we allowed them to play soccer between the two barracks in the soccer field. They were playing soccer themselves and that got a bit old, so we offered them a competition."

Even more popular than football is the 24-hour television programme showing instructions in the Koran.

And it is the pious pursuit of tenets of Islam which dominates life inside the communal camps. The detainees are allowed to organise their own prayers, which are called five times a day.

This recognition of the religious sensitivities of the inmates includes the censorship of magazines and newspapers which are distributed among the detainees. It means that the guards have to use marker pens to black out women's faces before they reach the camps and are read by the inmates.

Given the history of abuse associated with Camp X-Ray – the torture and waterboarding of so called "high-value" detainees including the most famous inmate of all, Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the 11 September architect – the US Government's effort to present Guantanamo as a humane penal institution will remain a very hard sell.

Profile: The admiral in charge of the notorious camp

The Guantanamo commander:

The good news is we are promoting you from Captain to Admiral. The bad news is we are sending you to Guantamao Bay to take charge of the prison camps...

One can imagine the conversation between the US military high command and Jeffrey Harbeson just before he became the tenth commander of the most notorious prison camp in the world.

Admiral Harbeson, formerly the US Navy’s deputy director of Surface Warfare for Combat Systems, has signed up for the year-long posting. Given the Obama administration’s lack of progress in closing the camps, the admiral is expected to serve his time in full.

The 54-year-old former graduate of the University of Maryland was selected for a Federal Executive Fellowship and studied at the George Washington University before serving as special assistant to the vice-chief of naval operations.

At Guantanamo the admiral is in charge of 2,000 military servicemen and service women, a half of whom are directly involved in guarding the 176 detainess who remain in US custody. Some of his staff volunteered for the posting but the majority were ordered to Guantanamo by the US navy. Guantanamo Bay can be a lonely posting and Admiral Harbeson says the navy devote a great of resources to cobatting stress and depression. The admiral does his bit to boost morale by walking round the camps at least once a day.

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