GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — The inmates of the detention center here were once considered the "worst of the worst" in the "war on terror." U.S. officials locked away hundreds of men picked up all over the world in a belief that they were all hardened enemies of America, ruthlessly committed to their cause.
But now, more than a decade later, many of the remaining detainees — the vast majority of whom have never been charged, and scores of whom have been cleared for release — are ailing as they get older behind bars. Their physical and mental health after years of captivity, often marked by hunger strikes, now requires frequent medical attention.
This week, an ophthalmologist was flown from the U.S. to the naval base to perform cataract surgery on two prisoners who have been held without trial for more than a decade. Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Greg, the officer in charge of the 15-bed detainee hospital, told Al Jazeera that visits to the prison by outside physicians have become routine over the past few months.
“As people age, there’s medical problems,” said Greg, a nurse who was deployed to Guantanamo two months ago. “For example, we just brought in a gastroenterologist to see our patients. We also just had a dermatologist here.”
There were no prisoners at the hospital when Al Jazeera toured the site. Greg said he does not see the most high-value prisoners — including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks — who are held in a top-secret camp at an undisclosed location on the base.
Greg said he is not authorized to disclose the identities of the prisoners undergoing surgery, because of privacy concerns. But he said he and the staff of the Joint Medical Group at the base have been treating prisoners who are battling problems ranging from obesity and diabetes to depression.
In fact, at least one prisoner has become so concerned with his diabetic condition that he requested the book “Diabetes for Dummies” from the detainee library, according to a library technician, Milton (who, like numerous other contractors who support the prison operations, would not disclose his surname for security reasons).
Both Greg and the senior medical officer refused to disclose the number of prisoners currently on hunger strike, in keeping with a newly implemented media blackout policy on the details. The senior medical officer disputed claims that the hunger strike has escalated. Last week, British prisoner Shaker Aamer told his attorney Clive Stafford Smith that the hunger strike is “back on” and involved 29 protesters — of whom 19 were subjected to force-feeding.
“I’ve seen a steady decrease in the number,” said the senior medical officer, who added that the force-feeding process was largely problem-free. “There have been a couple of detainees who are approved for enteral feeding who do resist the initial … being brought into the restraint chair. After that, generally speaking, they are sitting compliant and receiving their enteral feeding. There have been times when there has been some acting out, but usually it is relatively passive.”
Members of the medical staff provided identical responses to several specific questions, appearing somewhat rehearsed. Indeed, they said the medical conditions and quality of health care they have been providing to the prisoners are identical to what their patients receive in the U.S. All interviewees said that, with the exception of force-feeding, the prisoners have complete autonomy over their medical care.
“Prior to getting here I had no idea what to expect,” the senior medical officer said. “Getting down here and seeing what’s going on and how the medical care is delivered … it was eye-opening to see it’s pretty much the same as you would see anywhere. Obviously there are some logistical differences, such as the detainees requiring guard staff for movements.”
A psychiatrist, who also declined to be identified for security reasons, agreed. She said she has been treating prisoners who are suffering from depression and anxiety.
“I’ve seen here the same ailments I would see in a standard clinical practice,” she said. “It’s relatively similar, with the exception of the setting.”