GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Exactly five years after President Barack Obama signed an executive order shutting down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, 155 men are still detained there, most without charge.
The prison’s staff is constantly battling the possibility that inmates — depressed over their lengthy and indefinite detention — may commit suicide, which would further inflame the diplomatic problems Gitmo has already created. In an interview with journalists earlier this month, psychologists who care for the inmates said they treat the detainees’ feelings of hopelessness with yoga, talk therapy, medication and other tactics.
“Things like guided imagery exercises, breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises,” said a clinical psychologist who wished to be referred to as “Dr. Chicago” to protect her anonymity. (The military does not allow most Gitmo employees to be named or photographed for security reasons.) “We have handouts for poses and stretches for yoga,” she added.
If a detainee requests to see a psychologist, he is shackled and led by three guards to a separate building called the Behavioral Health Center, which has a staff of 12. Psychologists in the prison say they have treated a handful of prisoners who have had suicidal thoughts over the past four months. Some prisoners are on antidepressants and other medications, though the military would not say how many. In all, about half of the 155 remaining prisoners have spoken to the Gitmo psychologists in the past four months.
“Nobody has really said ‘I have a plan’ or really an intent" to kill himself, Dr. Chicago said. “It’s more, ‘I’m feeling so hopeless’ or ‘I’m so overwhelmed.’ … Occasionally an irrational thought such as self harm will come into their minds.” The military says seven men have committed suicide at the prison since it opened; it does not release the number of suicide attempts. In 2012, a Yemeni detainee committed suicide by hoarding psychiatric medication and then overdosing on it, according to a military report.
One of the main tasks of the hundreds of guards and medical staff deployed to the 12-year-old prison is to ensure that none of the men there commit suicide. The cells, all outfitted with surveillance cameras, are built with hooks that collapse if more than 40 pounds are placed on them. Guards are required to look at each prisoner every one to three minutes at all hours of the night and day to make sure he is alive. The requirement is one reason the prison has such a high prisoner-to-guard ratio. Prisoners are also not allowed to starve themselves to protest their detention. Prison staffers force-feed the prisoners they believe are close to starvation.
“Our No. 1 job here is to keep detainees safe,” Cmdr. John Filostrat, the head of public affairs at Guantanamo, said on my visit earlier this month. “If they try to harm themselves, that is definitely against our policy.”
The psychologists said they use “cognitive restructuring” to help the detainees work through suicidal thoughts or depression. They remind the prisoners to focus on the positives, including former Gitmo inmates who have been transferred out to other countries. Nearly 80 of the detainees have been approved to transfer to other countries by the Obama administration, but have been stymied by diplomatic and political hurdles from leaving the base.
“Since most of them have been there a lot of things have changed, people have left, and they know people have left,” Dr. Chicago said. “We have them do future oriented thoughts — picturing what their life will be like in the future.”