On Friday, Judge Gladys Kessler of the US district court of Washington, DC ruled that force-feeding procedures being used on a Guantanamo Bay prisoner named Abu Wa'el Dhiab do not amount to abuse. Therefore, they can continue.
Human rights groups and detainee lawyers have long argued that the force-feeding procedures used at the detention facility are a form of torture, and that detainees who are hunger striking shouldn't be force-fed at all. Many have vilified both the guards who are tasked with escorting detainees to the restraint chair and the medical personnel who snake the tubes up detainees' nostrils and into their stomachs.
I was stationed at Guantanamo as a guard for a year, and I know for a fact that force-feeding has been used in abusive ways at the detention facility. But the guard force and medical personnel who deal with the detainees on a daily basis and are charged with administering force-feedings are not to blame for the mistreatment of the detainees. The blame lies with Joint Task Force-Guantanamo's (JTF-GTMO) command staff, which creates the inhumane procedures that the guard force and medical personnel are required to follow.
When I arrived at Gitmo in March 2006, I was shocked at the conditions the detainees had to endure. By the time I arrived, most of the detainees had been there for four years, housed in Camp Delta in rectangular cell blocks open on both ends. The 6-feet-by-8-feet cells had grated walls and tin ceilings, neither of which did much to shield the detainees from the sweltering Cuban heat and humidity. They were allowed two showers per week and one hour of recreation time per week; that time was spent alone in a 20-foot-square area that provided just enough space for them to walk in circles.
Stripped of all their possessions and denied any outside contact with families and loved ones, the most effective way the detainees could protest their detainment and living conditions was to hunger strike. Many of them had already been hunger striking off and on for four years by the time I arrived, and their health was deteriorating due to malnutrition. That's why force-feeding procedures had to be put in place. If a detainee had died at Gitmo because he starved to death, or due to complications caused by malnutrition, it would have been a public relations nightmare for the JTF-GTMO command.
A guard or medic cannot conduct humane detention operations when they are ordered to follow procedures that are not humane.
All of that said, many of the detainees added additional dimensions to their protests. They created makeshift weapons out of anything they could get their hands on — from toilet paper to apple cores to springs that they would remove from the small sinks in their cells — in hopes of using the weapons to stab or strangle guards. Detainees would also make cocktails of urine and feces to throw on the guards during their rounds. I was once hit by one of those cocktails in Camp Delta. It was not pleasant.
When hunger striking detainees were taken to the medical clinic to be evaluated, they would sometimes attack medical personnel as well. Because of these actions, procedures were put in place to restrain detainees during medical evaluations.
I am not making any excuses for the misbehavior of guards or medical personnel at Gitmo. I saw a few unruly guards taunt, beat, and use pepper spray on detainees without any provocation. But the overwhelming majority of soldiers and sailors I saw dealing with detainees on a daily basis — they are the lower-ranking soldiers and sailors on the guard force and medical staff — were dedicated professionals. They simply wanted the detainees to be healthy and compliant, and no soldier or sailor wanted a detainee to die on his or her watch. If force-feeding was needed, then that is what they did.
The problem was that the medical personnel did not have the power to use the force-feeding procedures they saw fit to use — instead, they were required to follow the force-feeding procedures that were given to them by the JTF-GTMO command. The guard force, medical personnel, and detainees were all pushed beyond their limits by those procedures. And a guard or medic cannot conduct humane detention operations when they are ordered to follow procedures that are not humane.
JTF-GTMO command says they run a "Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent" operation, but they have shown time and time again that this is simply not true. And in the time since I was at Guantanamo, it does not seem much has changed. Until JTF-GTMO creates a more humane environment for the detainees, and employs safe and humane procedures dealing with hunger striking and force feeding issues, the problems at Gitmo will not go away.
Former Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman is author of the upcoming book Murder at Camp Delta and senior research fellow at Seton Hall Law Schools Center for Policy and Research.