At Gitmo, an Unsafe Mess Hall and an Inability to Treat Medical Emergencies

A general who oversees the prison explains the consequences of treating a decade-plus mission as if it is temporary.
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General John F. Kelly's testimony before the Senate didn't just focus on drug trafficking. The head of the U.S. Southern Command talked about Guantanamo Bay too. Per usual, he praised the military personnel there, downplayed the hunger strike undertaken by inmates, and avowed that they are treated humanely.

But he also pointed out that he would be unable to provide them with adequate medical care in certain emergencies. "Although Naval Station Guantanamo and detainee hospitals are capable of providing adequate care for most detainee conditions, we lack certain specialty medical capabilities necessary to treat potentially complex emergencies and various chronic diseases," he stated. "In the event a detainee is in need of emergency medical treatment that exceeds on-island capacity, I cannot evacuate him to the United States, as I would a service member." 

General Kelly also declared that certain buildings at Gitmo pose a safety risk to U.S. troops and detainees:

The expeditionary infrastructure put in place was intended to be
temporary, and numerous facilities are showing signs of deterioration .... Most urgently, some facilities are critical to ensuring the safety and welfare of our troops stationed at Joint Task Force Guantanamo and for the continued humane treatment and health of the detainees. For example, the mess hall—a temporary structure built in the 1990s to support mass migration operations—is at significant risk of structural failure and is corroding after eleven years of continuous use, with holes in the roof and structural support beams.

This facility must provide food services to all detainees and over 2,000 assigned personnel on a daily basis. As another example, the High Value Detention Facility is increasingly unsustainable due to drainage and foundation issues.

Already, these revelations have been met with indifference. No surprise there. The Bush-era propaganda insisting that everyone at Gitmo is "the worst of the worst" continues to do its work on the perceptions of Americans and their elected representatives. For many, the notion that the prison may include innocents suffering through a hell of indefinite duration is never so much as grappled with and dismissed. Americans like to think that they believe in innocence until guilt is proven, and that it's better to let 10 guilty men free than to lock up one innocent. 

Gitmo is a powerful illustration that we don't believe those things at all.

Kelly's warning about medical emergencies is additionally problematic. The current plan is still to hold these men into their dotage. Their medical issues will get more complex with every year that they age. Yet if a medical emergency threatens their lives, they won't be flown to the U.S. for treatment, even if it would save them from death. Why? We haven't just convinced ourselves, sans evidence, that the people at Gitmo are all moral monsters guilty of terrorism; we also think of them as if they're Magneto, ready to bust free of any constraint if permitted off the island. 

In his own, understated way, a military commander is telling Congress that he needs more resources to safely incarcerate these prisoners and to see to their medical needs.

But no one is listening.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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