America’s Zombie Prison


Alcatraz – prisoners convicted in a court of law, more light, more space – than Gitmo

Why add to something that is not supposed to exist?

The something in question is the United States’ prison in Guantánamo Bay, for which the Pentagon recently requested $49 million in extra funding. Despite Barack Obama’s promise in 2009 – one of his first as President – to shut down “Gitmo,” the US evidently has no intention of doing so anytime soon. In fact, the only thing concerning Gitmo that the Obama administration has shut down is the office of the special envoy, Daniel Fried, who had been tasked with its closure. The US State Department reassigned Fried in late January, and he will not be replaced.

How better to memorialize that decision than with a building boom at the prison? The new facility for which the money is to be earmarked will house 106 prisoners (the precise number is uncertain) who have been neither tried nor charged.

Eight of the prisoners are now entering the second month of a hunger strike. According to the spokesman for the US Southern Command, which oversees Gitmo, the hunger strikers are disillusioned, because they believed Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo. Indeed, they are cleared to leave, and it is only Obama’s failure to keep his promise – and the US Congress’s failure to legislate their transfer – that is keeping them there…

One reason why the Pentagon needs to build a costly new facility has to do with the role of private contractors in driving detention policy. …The vast, often undocumentable profits that flow to these companies go a long way toward explaining why facilities like Gitmo – and privately owned and operated prisons in the US itself – never close. The transfer of public money to private corporations is far more attractive than old-fashioned market capitalism…

Then there is the brutality of the prison. I recently toured Alcatraz, the former US federal prison in San Francisco Bay. Like Gitmo, Alcatraz was created, in the 1930’s, to house what was then “the worst of the worst”…Yet I was struck by how much more humane the facility and regime at Alcatraz were compared to Gitmo.

For starters, prisoners at Alcatraz who broke rules or were violent were punished by being put in “D Block,” where the cells had no windows; at Gitmo, all the cells that journalists are shown lack windows or natural light. Solitary confinement in D Block was seen as the harshest punishment, and it was never used for more than 48 hours at a time. At Guantánamo – and in other US facilities – prisoners are placed in solitary confinement for days or weeks at a time…At Gitmo, contrary to Red Cross rules, prisoners may not receive visits or mail from family, their reading is dramatically curtailed, and news is censored. They are not even notified of the deaths of parents and children…

…How is it that a prison too brutal for gangsters, too un-American to house the worst of the worst, was more humane than a place that Americans are spending millions to enlarge?

Yet, President Obama has promised more than once to put an end to Gitmo. I still wait to hear something more than opportunism, wobbly inability to press a case for the United States to live up to internationally-accepted standards of justice.

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