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Guantanamo to raze isolation block used for punishment

Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- The prison has notified a federal court that it plans to demolish a former cellblock where it punished low-value detainees with segregation and replace it with a more convenient site for captives to meet with their lawyers and receive phone calls.

Prison spokesman Navy Capt. John Robinson would not provide a working price tag for the proposed razing of 5 Echo, the now-defunct disciplinary block built for $690,000 in 2007. Nor would he say whether a new attorney-client meeting site would be free of eavesdropping devices.

On Wednesday, overall prison commander Navy Rear Adm. Edward Cashman notified the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that he plans to tear down 5 Echo "as soon as practicable after Oct. 16."

In its place the prison wants to build a new meeting spot for some 26 low-value captives closer to their prison, sparing them a van ride across the street. Robinson said by email that the new site would let troops move captives more quickly to and from legal meetings and would require less "manpower" at the Detention Center Zone here of about 1,500 guards, medics, lawyers, contractors and other U.S. troops.

The court is involved because it's the venue for Guantanamo captives to challenge their military detention. Detainee lawyers, believing that parts of the base were crime scenes, got a protective order years ago on any place where a captive was kept at the remote U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

Even as other sites have been demolished, that order has so far prevented the Pentagon from razing the crude chain-linked compound called Camp X-Ray, which a former NCIS agent in a new book described as the site of the torture of a captive held in isolation there.

It was not known Wednesday whether any of the defense attorneys will challenge the plan to demolish the 24-cell disciplinary block. In 2011, detainee lawyers complained about abusively isolating conditions at the box-car-style lockup where, instead of see-through metal mesh, workers welded steel plates between the cells.

The prison argues that at Guantanamo there is no such thing as solitary confinement, because even captives in single-cell lockdown can shout to each other through hardened walls.

Cashman said in the federal court filing that FBI agents have already "collected various data and recording" of the disciplinary block, from which a three-dimensional model could be made, should the court ever need one.

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The proposed project would be the latest demolition job at the downsized detention center of 41 captives. An $8.4 million renovation is currently under way at Camp 5 to transform a cellblock once used to force-feed hunger strikers into a detainee clinic and mental health ward. In August, the prison undertook what Robinson called "deconstruction" of the Camp Iguana prison compound where the Pentagon for years confined captives who were ordered released by the courts.

For the new meeting site, Robinson said, "cost of the proposed project is not available. Detailed design and procurement will occur after authorization for use of the site." By authorization, the spokesman seems to mean the expiration of Cashman's deadline for opposition to demolition.

5 Echo hasn't been used for years. On recent media visits it could be glimpsed behind dark green sniper netting as deteriorating in a weedy warren beside the 100-cell maximum security Camp 5. Two dozen of the last low-value detainees live in the adjacent Camp 6, a $39 million, 200-cell medium-security prison.

Robinson declined to answer a question about whether the prison would be disabling any leftover listening devices at 5 Echo. The decision comes at a time when the chief defense counsel for military commissions, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, has formally cautioned lawyers who work for him that no attorney-client meeting site at the base may be free of military monitoring.

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