Last January, at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, the admiral in charge tapped his chair and told me that “Twelve years ago, none of us thought that anybody would still be sitting here today.” Visiting journalists didn’t seem to think so, either. Early on the whole affair had a stopgap, seat-of-the-pants feel about it. As I write this month for Vanity Fair, Camp X-Ray, Gitmo’s first containment for prisoners of the war on terror, looked like a kennel complex for very large dogs. By 2003, when I first visited, it had already been abandoned. And today, the replacement facilities I saw then have also been abandoned. I’ve always found the sight of an abandoned prison pleasing, but unfortunately at Guantánamo, the newest prisons, known as Camp 5 and Camp 6, are solid, expensive constructions that look disturbingly early in their lifespans.
Though President Obama has released 33 prisoners in the past year, it appears that the outflow—all of them prisoners who were cleared for release years ago—may soon be curtailed. In addition to political opposition, a core problem is that Guantánamo has at least 35 “forever” prisoners, men the U.S. deems too dangerous to release but is reluctant to try in court. As explained in this article, two dozen more “remain in legal limbo, recommended for trial by a federal task force five years ago but not yet charged.”
What I saw during my most recent trip is how Guantánamo has taken the already-extreme practices of punitive confinement on the mainland, and extended them. To get Guantánamo, you take a supermax (solitary confinement) prison, such as 44 states now have, and subtract the idea of terms and sentences — of a release date. My new article is here.