GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - In the hope of encouraging better behavior among men being held as terrorism suspects in a maximum security facility at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, parts of it will be gradually transformed to allow some of them to eat, visit, and exercise together.
The planned easing of conditions in some cell blocks of Camp Six is part of an effort to provide more intellectual stimulation for the prisoners, said Rear Admiral Dave Thomas, who two months ago took over command of the prison and interrogation network.
"The effect I hope to achieve is to get greater compliance," Thomas said last week as he showed journalists the construction work underway to reconfigure guard posts and access. Prisoners left out of the initial group accorded communal living "would see that others got this and that might be an incentive."
The Guantanamo Bay naval base is the site of the first US war crimes trial since World War II. A jury of military officers is expected to begin deliberations today in the case of Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who was a driver for Osama bin Laden. Hamdan faces a maximum life sentence on charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism.
At Guantanamo's Camp Six, about 75 prisoners live in individual concrete-wall cells with steel doors.
Camp Six was modeled after a prison in Michigan, with a common area outfitted with tables and stools for meals, games, and conversation. The detainees have been able to see those areas through the narrow windows in their cell doors, but they have not been allowed to use them.
The camp was nearing completion in May 2006, when a riot in Camp Four - which housed detainees considered the most compliant - prompted prison officials to order stepped up restrictions throughout the sprawl of prison camps that now number eight.
Camp Four held 175 men before the riot - reportedly sparked by the mishandling by guards of the Koran during a search for contraband. Only 75 men are now at the barracks-like facility, where they live 10 to a room, take their meals together, and can spend most daylight hours outside playing sports.
Guantanamo's prisoner population has dropped in the last few years from more than 700 to about 270 with the release of men deemed little threat to US security or transferred to be dealt with by their home countries.
Thomas declined to say whether the prisoner population has become more hard-core as less confrontational detainees have been weeded out. But he conceded there was no more demand for facilities for those considered highly compliant.
At Camp Four, which has a capacity of 200, one of the empty rooms has been outfitted with a flat-screen television for showing taped sports events and TV programs. Another barracks has been converted to a school room where English lessons are offered as well as basic Arabic and Pashto for illiterate detainees.
At Camp Five, housing about 50 prisoners in maximum-security conditions, movies are shown every two weeks to individual detainees as a reward for good behavior, Thomas said. Films are shown in the prison's interrogation room. Camp-to-camp communication is still discouraged.