Guantánamo Prayers: An 'America' editor goes inside the offshore prison

Camp X-Ray is no longer used by the United States to hold prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but it cannot be torn down. It is preserved as a site for gathering evidence. Gnarly, overgrown Bermuda grass covers the pathways, green vines crawl up a maze of chain-linked fencing and barbed wire, and banana rats encamp in the rafters of abandoned human cages, which once held about 300 prisoners.

Last week I had an opportunity to walk the silent, deserted grounds of Camp X-Ray. A Navy combat photographer snapped the iconic photo of the first prisoners arriving in the makeshift camp on Jan. 11, 2002: Prisoners knelt in rows, shackled, wearing orange scrubs, blacked-out goggles and earmuffs. After a full tour, and filming a five-minute video report, I asked my military escort, a young soldier from Kentucky, if I could take a moment to gather my thoughts. He said yes. Moments later I went to my knees, positioned my hands behind my back (as if shackled) and began to pray.


My first thoughts were with the 779 men imprisoned at Guantánamo over the last 11 years. I imagined the confusion and fear of the first prisoners in Camp X-Ray, those subjected to torture in C.I.A. interrogations and those who continue to be indefinitely detained, left wondering whether they will ever unite with family.

But then, unexpectedly, I began thinking of many others associated with the daily operation of the prison camps. During my week reporting for America, I had the opportunity to listen to the personal experience of several men and women who work in the prison camps. Kneeling in the Bermuda grass, I began praying for them: the military policemen who guard the camps, medical staff who care for the physical and mental health needs of the prisoners, cooks who take great pride in preparing quality meals for the prisoners, a librarian who organizes 20,000 available titles to choose from, and chaplains who provide compassionate pastoral care for soldiers separated from family and friends. Their work undoubtedly engenders sympathy from Americans, yet in some ways the challenges they face are less chronicled than many other stories coming out of Guantánamo.

A Soldier’s Perspective

Consider this composite image of a young military policeman in Guantánamo Bay. Recently deployed to Guantánamo for nine months, he is not fully prepared for the demanding task of controlling a volatile situation under intense international scrutiny. He did not create the problem, but he is charged with dealing with it. He works long hours without the immediate support of family and friends. On occasion a prisoner splashes him with a mixture of human feces and urine. He wears a mask for protection, but the fluid makes contact with his hair and trickles down his face and into his eyes. He cleans up, heads to the hospital for blood tests, and then returns to the unit to continue his work.

He had no choice over who is detained, or why the prison is still open, but he is responsible for the safe and humane custody of the prisoners. No matter what comes his way, he is expected to act professionally at all times. Facing so many challenges at work and home, he comes close to a breaking point. He is distant from his children, his marriage is on the rocks and his spouse—perhaps a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan—suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. When he finally returns to the States, he expects no victory parade and very little thanks. Somehow he finds a way to cope.

He had his reasons for joining the military, and he feels a duty to faithfully execute the mission. He values the chain of command and is exemplary at following orders. However, it is admittedly hard to maintain morale in this situation. In a recent news conference the commander-in-chief referred to the prison as unnecessary, contrary to our interests and not who we are. In a speech on security policy, the president added, “History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to stop it.” Hearing this, the soldier might wonder: Who is giving the orders? What is the mission? Why am I here? Yet such questions do not change his fundamental reality: each day he wakes up, goes to work and does his job as best he can.

More Stories to Come

The view of the military policeman is just one of many perspectives that I gained during a week of tours and interviews in Guantánamo Bay. There are hundreds of people associated with the daily functioning of the prison camps: commanders, public affairs officers, guards, cooks, chaplains and medical staff. Each tries to focus on simply doing his or her job but inevitably lives in the shadow of the political and moral realities of Guantánamo. Each of them is part of an operation that receives intense scrutiny and routine criticism from human rights organizations, faith-based groups and professional associations. This can be a heavy weight to carry.

There are many more stories to be told, and I look forward to sharing these with America’s readers. A Navy commander, an attorney representing one of the men accused of financing the Sept. 11 attacks, explained what it is like to talk with family members who lost loved ones in the attacks. He also described the challenge, as a uniformed military officer, of building trust with his client, a Muslim man accused of fighting a war against the United States.

A military chaplain described—sometimes in painful detail—many of the personal and professional challenges of the prison guards. He also talked about the interreligious learning that occurred when he worked in Jordan with Imam chaplains preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.

A Muslim cultural adviser, one of the longest serving staff in the prison camps, explained that this is a time of great hope for those detained. They know about the appointment of a new envoy for closing Guantánamo, and they know that two U.S. senators recently visited the prison camps. They are aware that their ongoing hunger strike has renewed interest in transferring detainees out of Guantánamo and ultimately closing the prison.

Before this latest trip, when I thought of the political and moral failure of our policies in Guantánamo Bay, I immediately (and sometimes exclusively) considered how it affected those most obviously subject to it: the prisoners. Last week, however, I began to learn that many others are also subject to these policies. In a press conference on April 30 President Obama offered a litany of reasons for why we should close the Guantánamo prison. He should add this to his list: it is not fair for the military personnel sent there to carry out the mission. It unnecessarily places them in a moral and political situation that none of them asked for.

View new photos from Guantánamo Bay.

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Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 12 months ago
thank you for this continued coverage from America magazine and Luke Hanson. Just the fact that you are there gives hope. I appreciate the way you include so many sides of this multi-faceted story - the soldiers who must work there, the 9/11 victims, the detainees. Somehow the backdrop of the abandoned Camp Xray site reminds me of one of the Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps one day Guantanomo will be some kind of memorial to the capacity of the human soul to heal and forgive. Keep listening, keep watching, keep reporting!
John Wotherspoon
5 years 11 months ago
Thank you Luke for excellent article. As a prison chaplain (in Hong Kong) I am most grateful to America for continuing to publish prison articles. I hope America can soon do another story on the present California prisoners' hunger strike - like the previous articles and I hope President Obama can soon offer a litany of reasons why torture in US prisons should cease, where torture is defined as by the UN to mean more than 15 days in solitary confinement (except for protection etc) A file of articles re the California strike: File includes support statement from California bishops:
Christopher Spicer
5 years 11 months ago
Two Books and a Story Guantánamo Files : The Stories of the 774 detainees in America's Illegal Prison by Andy Worthington (2007) Selling Guantánamo : exploding the propaganda surrounding America's most notorious military prison by John Hickman (2013) I was serving time for resisting America's sins of torture, SEATAC FDC. The guard was delivering me property in my solitary housing unit. Yes, it was ironic as he handed me the book Guantánamo Files: "Huh? I used to work there" he said. I kept my composure. "What was that like for you?" "Hell on Earth." When I write my oughtobiography, I'll try something Ignatian. Inigo had gotten to the quick of his companions asking Xavier once, is it better to gain the whole world and lose your soul, or to go, light the world on fire with passion for God. I'll be meeting a soldier prison guard and say "Is it worth your soul to defend the US imperialism of the whole world?" I'll be reading an article and say, "Is it worth your soul 'America' to re-present the propaganda of Camp Delta 'Honor Bound...' with that lead picture?" That image is uncritical, unreflective, and un-coordinated with the opening paragraphs of Camp X-ray. Take down that image now. Stop selling the propaganda!


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