Time has stopped here in Guantanamo Bay. Forty-one men remain imprisoned without charge, suspended in space and time, detached from families and homeland, a 15-year hiatus from reality.
I’ve been coming to this place for a few years now as a lawyer for the prisoners, but it still feels surreal to me. Some days (including today), the power will go out entirely on one side of the island and stay out all day without explanation or warning. The only modes of transportation here are a yellow school bus and slow-chugging ferry—a throwback to some suburban childhood that wasn’t mine.
Days at Guantanamo are quiet and dull—the people who work on the base have polite southern accents (all “yes sir” and “no ma’am”), and all the faces are familiar. It’s like a scene from Pleasantville —but for the prison. I think people here forget that they’re living next to the most famous prison in the world. When I answer a mail clerk’s question about why I’m on the base, he looks as though I have reminded him of a childhood classmate he had worked to forget. “Ohh yeah… right,” he says.
On this trip, I am meeting with eight men. One of them—Tolfiq al Bihani—was cleared to go home in 2010. This means that the entire American security apparatus has agreed unanimously that Tolfiq posed no threat to the U.S. Guantanamo may be the only prison on earth that keeps prisoners it concedes need not be imprisoned.
This is the era of Donald Trump, which for most down here simply means the third commander-in-chief who hasn’t quite known what to do about this illegal prison. The detainees all have different perspectives on what his clumsy reign will bring. For now, we sit and wait. My clients have become good at that.
These days, things are as quiet inside the prison as out. The inmates are now long-term residents, and have been there much longer than the average Guantanamo resident, who’ll rotate here for some nine months to two years. These prisoners have familiar routines, old favorites, likes and dislikes; they know the behaviors of local wildlife as well as any local biologist might. They can explain the Caribbean weather patterns, and list which foods are available on base and which are not. They are like 41 grandfathers with a view of the town from their front porch, but their ankles are chained to their rocking chairs.
We communicate in English, all of my clients and I. Sometimes they correct my word choice, and I imagine a little “w/c” scribbled on a high school essay. This trip, two of my clients read aloud to me from books in English. What kind of shattered beauty is it to teach yourself a new language from scratch in this place—the language of your captors.
All my clients here have spent over 10 years in prison without ever being charged with a crime. Ten years ago, I didn’t have my law license. Ten years ago, we heard Obama promise the closure of Guantanamo from the campaign trail. The men here know better than anyone that political promises in Washington are just that.
As the years tick by, while American politicians hem and haw, and American people look away, these stranded prisoners age—beards turn gray and life slips away. My unmarried clients dream of a future family, children to raise, while encountering the usual signs of growing older—high blood pressure, osteoporosis, arthritis. What happens when my client, Saifullah Paracha, a 70-year-old father of four, has a heart attack while imprisoned here? There is no facility to save him.
On the airplane home to New York, I wonder if Donald Trump, businessman, has done the math on Guantanamo. It costs the U.S. government $445 million a year to keep this prison open. That’s over $29,000 per prisoner, per night—spent to secure me, as an American, from the clients I visit several times a year. Meanwhile, men across the world dress their prisoners in familiar orange jump suits to terrify us all.
I know I don’t feel any safer, do you?