GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Fewer than 40 detainees are refusing to eat or otherwise causing strife in the prison camps, the detention commander indicated Wednesday in a wide-ranging interview that described a steadily calming atmosphere after a year-long hunger strike in the prison camps.
Last April, the U.S. military put most prisoners under lockdown — each captive alone inside a single cell — in a divide-and-conquer strategy to manage a hunger strike that ultimately swept up more than 100 captives.
Since then, the military has stopped reporting hunger strike statistics and steadily moved those who don’t participate in the food protest to communal detention as a reward.
As of this week, Rear Adm. Richard Butler said, almost 70 percent of Guantánamo’s 154 detainees were being held in communal, medium-security detention.
With the 15 former CIA prisoners in solitary cells at a clandestine prison called Camp 7, none of them known to be hunger strikers, that leaves fewer than 40 of the long-held detainees in the possibly hunger-striking population.
Currently, Butler said, the prison tracks “up to a couple dozen detainees” as those who won’t eat, have become so malnourished they require tube feedings or have related weight-loss health risks.
The prison required the captives to eat regularly — and to stop calling themselves hunger strikers — as a condition of release from lockdown. Communal captivity lets captives pray together, eat together, watch TV together and do group exercise.
“They largely tapered off and came off the hunger strike on their own, or quit stating that they were on a hunger strike, let’s put it that way,” he said. Communal captive means less constant contact between guards and the captives, who are largely left on their own inside their common areas with guards passing them food, watching and waiting for their requests.
Butler spoke to four Miami Herald journalists and a visiting reporter from the EFE news service in the third day of a week-long visit to Guantánamo that so far allowed only a brief glimpse of three communal captives, making it impossible to gauge the mood in the camps.
Separately, a different prison official who functions as Butler’s Islamic cultural adviser estimated that since the military imposed a blackout on daily disclosures 10 to 15 captives refuse to eat on any given day.
And a pair of Navy medics who administer prisoner tube feedings described, anonymously, under new prison access rules, an atmosphere of normalcy accompanying the renourishment procedures. Hunger strikers who cooperate with the medical staff can sit together, up to five prisoners inside a “fast room,” each man with a tube snaked up his nose into his stomach — requesting a Navy medic, called a corpsman, to slow or speed up the flow of a can of vanilla Ensure or nutritional supplements.
They’re called “VIP feeders,” said a female corpsman. And, if not fed in groups, she added, cooperative captives are allowed to play video games or watch TV while restrained in a reclining chair as they receive their nourishment.
In another sign of the improved atmosphere in the camps, some captives asked, and the military agreed, to start Spanish lessons — suggesting some are getting ready for life after Guantánamo.
Two years ago, after the U.S. sent two prisoners to resettlement in El Salvador, the detention center revealed that it had provided them with Rosetta Stone instruction in Spanish. This time, the prison is offering Spanish lessons taught by an instructor.
A government delegation from a Spanish-speaking nation visited Guantánamo several weeks ago, the admiral told reporters.
In other news:
• Butler said the military has mapped out troop rotations to run the prison on a timeline that extends after President Barack Obama leaves office. “Certainly the stated public goal is to get it shut down by the end of the year,” he said.
Half of the 154 detainees are cleared for transfer, provided the State Department can find countries to safely take them. But the admiral said, “literally, I do not have a good feel right now how the negotiations are going in terms of whether” the military would be transferring from the prison “only a handful” of prisoners “or a whole lot more.”
Meantime, he said, the Pentagon was planning to continue staffing the prison with 40 percent full-time soldiers and 60 percent Reserve and National Guard troops into 2016, and the next administration. Rotations are more easily canceled than started, he added.
• Butler said there’s no immediate danger to guards or captives at Guantánamo’s most secret prison, Camp 7. The Southcom commander, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, recently told Congress the structure is “ increasingly unsustainable.”
The problem isn’t the construction or wear-and-tear in the salt air at this base, Butler said, but the site selection — on a shifting piece of ground.
“Literally the ground’s heaving up underneath it. So it’s cracking the floor. That’s the biggest issue. So once you start cracking the floors, you start cracking the walls, then doors don’t work — things like that. That’s the issue,” he said.
“Right now it’s operational, but the fear is that any more [and] it’s going to potentially not be.”
• Butler said the Detention Center Zone had received no specific threat to prompt the high-profile presence of Humvees patrolling the Caribbean seafront compound in recent weeks.
Instead, he said, an assessment identified a nonspecific security gap — apparently discovered once cavalry units replaced infantry units as an external-security force — that had been overlooked in years of patrols in air-conditioned SUVs rather than armed vehicles.
Plus, he noted, “The cavalry is used to riding their Humvees.”