Guantanamo Tightens Security After Prisoner Riot

The U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is beefing up security. Officials say a riot last spring is prompting some of the changes, which included the transfer of a large number of prisoners from medium- to maximum-security settings.

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Suspected terrorists have been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for nearly five years. There's never been an escape, but there was an uprising this spring which has forced military officials at Guantanamo to rethink security measures. NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam has just returned from a visit to Guantanamo and she has this report.

Unidentified Woman #1: Sally. Sally.

(Soundbite of gate opening)

Commander CHRIS WINTER(ph) (U.S. Navy; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba): Open.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Navy Commander Chris Winter calls for a military guard to open a large metal gate leading to a sally port - a secure holding area at the front entrance to Camp 4. Camp 4 is the medium-security detention area at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Winter says unlike other camps at the base, this one has communal-style living

Cmdr. WINTER: They can be possibly outside for up to 18 hours. You have the soccer field, the volleyball net, the basketball net, and they can pray together, eat together.

NORTHAM: Around 150 detainees, about one-third of Guantanamo's prison population, were housed here at Camp 4. They were considered compliant with interrogators and camp rules and so were given a bit of latitude for good behavior.

That changed on May 18th. Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the military task force at Guantanamo, says early in the evening, guards in Camp 4 thought they saw a detainee preparing to hang himself.

Rear Admiral HARRY HARRIS (U.S. Navy; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba): When they opened the door and rushed in, the detainees had put soapy water, urine and feces on the floor. Obviously at this point in hindsight, the attempted suicide was simply a rouse to get the guards to rush in.

NORTHAM: Harris says the guards were then ambushed by the detainees.

Rear Adm. HARRIS: They had taken fluorescent light bulbs, had broken off the ends, and were using those as stabbing weapons. They had taken the cameras and were using them as bludgeoning weapons. They had taken the fans apart and used the blades of the fans as cutting weapons.

NORTHAM: Guards were finally able to quell the violence. No one was seriously hurt. Military officials say the riot was a well-coordinated attack. But the detainees' defense lawyers say it was a spontaneous act in response to mishandling of the Koran by prison guards.

Either way, this was the first and only serious riot at Guantanamo. The incident has forced officials there to reevaluate how they treat the so-called compliant detainees says Admiral Harris.

Rear Adm. HARRIS: It's helped us understand better the nature of compliance and what that means for a terrorist, because that's in fact what we're dealing with. We're not dealing with prisoners; we're dealing with terrorists.

NORTHAM: The riot resulted in a series of changes, including revised plans for housing the detainees in the future.

Unidentified Man #1: All right. We're going to be going in through one of the recreation yards.

(Soundbite of door opening)

NORTHAM: Camp 6 is a hard-walled prison modeled after a facility in Michigan. When construction is completed later this fall it will be capable of holding more than 200 detainees.

Initially, Camp 6 was to be a medium-security prison with communal eating and recreation areas. Not now. After the May riot, Guantanamo officials decided Camp 6 would become a maximum-security prison.

Navy Lieutenant Commander Aileen D'Andria(ph) says the change is not just about architecture.

Lieutenant Commander AILEEN D'ANDRIA (U.S. Navy; Guantanamo Gay, Cuba): It's the way you operate a facility that you go from a medium to a maximum-security. Medium-security, they would have more free reign to move about, while in a maximum-security they will not.

NORTHAM: Guantanamo officials say they need to stay one step ahead of the detainees. For example, in Camp 1, a maximum-security section that also holds compliant detainees, all faucets are being replaced because a spring in the current type can be used as a weapon.

Three detainees committed suicide in Camp 1 in June, and there have been many other attempts. Now detainees who may want to kill themselves are issued anti-suicide smocks and blankets says Cmdr. Winter.

Cmdr. WINTER: These are manufactured in such a way that you can't rip it or tear it and use it to hang yourself.

NORTHAM: The potential is always there that detainees will plan more attacks in the future. Military officials say the prisoners talk to each other all day long.

Unidentified Man #2 (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3 (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Some believe the May 18th riot may have been the prisoners' way of testing Adm. Harris, who took command of Guantanamo less than two months beforehand. His reaction has been swift and Harris has left no doubt that privileges will have to be earned at Guantanamo.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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