For months, the United States has held hundreds of suspected Taleban and al-Qaida detainees in small, individual cells at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For some captives, that living arrangement may change early next year, when construction of a new, dormitory style detention facility is scheduled to be completed.
Under the broiling sun, work crews toil to lay a cement foundation off to one side of Camp Delta, which houses more than 600 detainees from more than 40 nations.
The camp's commander, Colonel John Perrone, says not all captives are alike. "We have had some time to assess the risk [posed] by the different detainees," he says. "And it is no secret - some of the detainees we consider very, very dangerous. Others are less [of a] risk."
As a result, the "one-size-fits-all" practice of housing the detainees in identical, maximum security cells will soon change. A so-called "medium security" facility expected to be completed in January will afford a select number of captives a less rigid daily existence and an opportunity to interact with one another.
For nearly a year, the United States has attempted to glean information from the detainees for use in the war on terrorism. The commander of the operation at Guantanamo, General Geoffrey Miller, says the new facility at Camp Delta is designed to further that goal.
He says whether or not a captive is transferred there will depend on two factors. "Good behavior and cooperation in the interrogation process," he says. "If you do not cooperate, your likelihood of going to the medium-security facility would be significantly reduced."
The general describes the new locale as a communal facility resembling a dormitory, with up to 20 detainees held in each of several spacious units. No longer separated by metal mesh walls, the detainees will eat, sleep and, if they wish, pray together.
General Miller says the arrangement has the blessing of International Red Cross observers and should reduce stress and boost morale among the captives. "Whenever you detain people for a long time, they must have the opportunity to become less constrained. Hope is enormously important," he says. "The detainees' number one question is, 'When will I be able to go home?' And so this [new facility], while not an answer to their question, says that we are allowing them to have a less challenging existence while in our custody."
From the start, the detainees' mental health has been a concern for officials at Guantanamo. Medical officers report that five percent of the captives currently receive medication for psychological disorders that either preceded their detention or have arisen since their arrival at Camp Delta.
One guard who prefers not to be identified says those who are mentally ill are easy to spot. "There are people in there who are not right upstairs [have mental problems], so to speak. There is a section of a cell block that houses people who are on specific watches, because [guards] observe behaviors that are not normal, like people who yell all day calling out for a spirit to take them away," he says.
Such seriously disturbed individuals are unlikely to be transferred to the new facility, once completed. But officials at Guantanamo say they hope the improved living quarters will boost the mental outlook of other captives and prevent them from falling into despair, thereby alleviating a problem that could grow worse the longer detainees are held.
The chief medical officer for the operation is Captain Albert Shimkus, who says "those detainees who will be in that [new] facility versus where they are now will take a step that will give them some stability. So we see it as a positive."
For months, officials at Guantanamo have described the detainees as killers who mean harm to the United States. Soldiers stationed at Camp Delta say, despite making every effort to treat the detainees humanely, they must never let down their guard when dealing with them.
Asked about the wisdom of allowing such individuals to band together in the new facility, the camp's commander, Colonel John Perrone, shrugs. "It is not like we are going to open it up and fill it to capacity the first day. We view it as something the detainee will work toward, or earn. We will do the best we can," he says.
Colonel Perrone says detainees will continue to be closely monitored at the new facility, and that ensuring security will remain the number one priority.