GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – At the detainee library recently, the Army captain in charge divulged that he had ordered Season 4 of “Desperate Housewives” after a detainee wrecked the collection’s DVDs of Seasons 1 through 3.
During the monthly tour for the media, the man who serves as warden explained. The destructive detainee was a fan of the show and “disappointed that the new ones hadn’t come in,” said Army Col. Stephen Gabavics.
This was the last visit by journalists at the Detention Center Zone before the presidential election, and the leadership offered a finely honed message of full support for this commander in chief’s 2009 closure order, while preparing for prison life after President Obama leaves office.
And acquiring Season 4 of “Desperate Housewives” for the 35,000-item detainee lending library is the least of it.
The skeletal structure of a $12.4 million dining hall — for the exclusive use of hundreds of staff assigned to the prison that today holds 60 captives — is rising not far from the commander’s eavesdrop- and hurricane-proof headquarters that opened in 2004 at a cost of $13.5 million. Elsewhere, contractors are remodeling a cellblock at an empty state-of-the-art, 100-cell prison building, Camp 5, which will become a new, $8.4 million health clinic and psychiatric ward.
“We are planning for closure. That’s the direction we’re given,” the Detention Center Zone commander, Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, told five reporters representing news outlets from China, Germany, Spain, Tennessee and Miami the morning after he was the featured speaker at the base Navy Ball. But he also made a pitch to build new barracks even as he plans to cut three Military Police Companies from his guard force by year’s end, shrinking his staff to 1,600. “I think it’s my professional responsibility to continue to look at what we can, should and must do if we’re going to be here for an extended period of time,” Clarke said. Without prodding, he noted that his staff envisions detention operations “10 years from now.”
The commander’s cultural adviser, a Jordanian-American Muslim man known to the captives as Zaki, said that the detainees were more interested in the presidential campaign than the World Series.
But nobody on the tour would hazard a guess on who the 60 foreign captives from 13 nations favor.
Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was a strong supporter of Obama’s failed closure plan, which cut down the detainee population to a fourth of the approximately 240 captives who were left there after the administration of George W. Bush released or repatriated about 540 war-on-terror prisoners. Her opponent, Donald Trump, has vowed to “load it up with some bad dudes.”
“They watched all three debates,” said Zaki, some in the original English on Iran’s Press TV and others through Arabic translation. He predicted that on election night, “they’ll watch it live.”
Camp 7, the secret lockup of 15 former CIA captives, six of them awaiting death-penalty trials for Al-Qaida’s USS Cole and Sept. 11 attacks, is not up for discussion.
But for the captives who got here mostly from 2002 to 2004, the command staff is brainstorming quality-of-life improvements that, in some instances, seem to take a page from the Geneva Conventions.
Gabavics, the warden, is exploring whether the prison can provide “aquaponics” to the captives who live in communal confinement. Gardening efforts through the years have failed at the searing seafront property. These days, the only thing the captives have succeeded in growing is mint, a taste of home for their tea, planted in a recreation yard.
Commanders are also discussing whether they can set up a commissary — under the Geneva Conventions prisoners of war are entitled to a canteen — where cooperative captives could trade points earned for good behavior for personal hygiene products, rather than take prison-issue basics.
It’s just an idea. No action officer has given Clarke a report yet. But the commissary would let captives trade points earned for good behavior for choices in toothpaste, deodorant and soap. “The goal would be to provide a little more decision ability,” said Clarke, who is due to return to the Navy early next year.
The international reporters did see Saturday night prayer. Groups of captives in hospital-style uniforms could be seen through one-way glass standing in a communal ritual across several cellblocks.
But not in Hotel Block. There, two Army guards occupied the common area. Locked inside one of the cells was Ali Hamza al-Bahlul — the prison’s lone convict, serving life for conspiring with Al-Qaida as an aide to Osama bin Laden.
The prison visit came two weeks after Hurricane Matthew brushed past, causing no meaningful damage to the base but devastating Haiti.
On the base, the commander sent 717 family members plus several dozen pets to safe haven in Pensacola, Fla., just in case. And at the prison, troops moved the 15 former CIA captives from Camp 7 to a secret hurricane shelter.
The 45 run-of-the-mill detainees of Camp 6 were issued pork-free rations, and each man was locked in his cell until the storm passed.
Zaki said there were no complaints from captives and that Gabavics and Clarke thanked them — an account that can’t be verified because even now, 14 years into their detention, prisoners are not allowed to speak with reporters.