GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — As the U.S. military was grappling with the long-running prisoner hunger strike last year, U.S. Army guards and other detention center staff were simultaneously shaken by a tuberculosis scare, the prison camps commander revealed last week.
No active case was found among the 2,100-strong Pentagon prison staff or the 154 war-on-terror captives in their custody. But the Navy mobilized a public health team to the remote base in southeast Cuba over the summer and into fall to methodically test both troops and detainees, Rear Adm. Richard Butler said in an interview Wednesday with the Miami Herald and EFE news service.
Most of Guantanamo’s prisoners were brought to the prison camps in Cuba in 2002, where they’ve been held without charge or trial ever since. Now, more than a dozen years later, Butler said, “well over half of them have latent TB” — an increase over the original baseline — and a particular cause for concern among extra Navy medical staff sent to the base a year ago to cope with the food protests.
Tuberculosis, caused by a bacterium that typically attacks the lungs, can be fatal. It is spread through the air from one person to another through coughs and sneezes. Prison populations can be particularly vulnerable, according to the World Health Organization.
Butler said the suspicions were fueled by a population of prisoners already losing weight in the food strike. On June 28, when the U.S. military was still disclosing hunger strike figures, the prison reported a record 106 of the then-166 captives were on hunger strike. Less than a month later, on July 16, a record 46 of the hunger strikers were designated for forced feedings, strapped to a restraint chair with a tube snaked up each captive’s nose, if they refused to drink a can of nutritional supplement on their own.
The crisis in the camp put guards and the majority of captives in constant contact for the first time in years. Before the strike erupted in early 2013, the military had systematically given the captives greater privileges and independence inside communal lockups with guards watching on the outside.
But to crush the protest, the military put most prisoners under lockdown, each man alone inside his cell. Captives were suddenly dependent on U.S. troops to deliver meals and other supplies through a slot in a steel door.
Troops at the prison had more close contact with captives: The Army guard force systematically searched the genitals of captives as they came and went from legal and other meetings, to check for contraband. In addition, the guard force increasingly used a technique called a “forced-cell-extraction” on hunger strikers who refused to leave their cells for tube-feedings — sending a unit of troops charging inside a cramped cell to tackle and shackle a defiant captive for a tube feeding.
In the aftermath of the TB scare, Butler said, Navy health officials have decided to check each prisoner annually. Some would get questionnaires asking whether they’ve been coughing a lot, he said. Other might get blood tests or chest X-rays.
For that reason, the military was maintaining an almost 1-to-1 ratio of Navy health provider to prisoners even as the hunger strike has dipped below 40 participants.
Butler said separately that the prison had not succeeded in finding any alternative to providing urgent medical care for detainees at the U.S. Navy base.
Congress has forbidden the Pentagon from airlifting detainees in need of emergency medical treatment to U.S. medical facilities, and in 2007 the U.S. had a failed diplomatic effort to find a Latin American partner country to enter into a “standby arrangement” to provide “life-saving procedures” on a “humanitarian basis.”
Under the spurned offer, the Pentagon would have handled transportation and security — and paid all costs of the health treatment.
Guantanamo, which has a small community hospital, has emergency-care capabilities. Most critically ill base residents are airlifted to the United States.
Were a detainee to have a heart attack, however, the U.S. military would “stabilize him long enough for decisions to be made,” Butler said.
“We’d do the best we can,” he added, noting that the Pentagon has a rotating roster of U.S. military health specialists on call to fly to Guantanamo on short notice from various East Coast health facilities.