First thing in the morning, a man stopped at my door, leaned in, looked me square in the eye, called me “a piece of shit” and spat on my floor. I was in a prison cell and wearing a day-glo–orange inmate’s jumpsuit, sitting on a thin mat, where I had sat and slept intermittently – and uncomfortably – through the preceding seven hours.

I tried not to take it personally.

Amnesty International brought the cell to Monument Square in Portland, Maine, and arranged several days of events about the offshore prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to draw attention to the 270 or so inmates still held there, and to highlight congressional support for suspending the legal rights of inmates there, most of whom have never been charged with a crime.

I’d volunteered to spend the night in the replica cell (which is modeled on the ones at Gitmo, which in turn resemble the standard isolation units used in “supermax” prisons) because we’ve all heard stories about unlivable conditions at Gitmo, but can’t come close to imagining what it must be like to live for years in a small box with little contact with the outside world, and even less hope of release. I hoped my few hours of simulated incarceration – even without the alleged abuse visited on Gitmo detainees by U.S. service personnel – would help me appreciate the nightmare those prisoners endure.

When I first entered the cell, I sized things up. I could take three normal-size steps from side to side, four from the door to the bed; a “lap” around it involved 12 reasonably normal steps. With my arms outstretched to the sides, I could touch the walls; reaching up, I could touch the ceiling with my feet flat on the floor. Lying on the raised platform that served as my bed, my head touched one wall and my feet pressed against the other. The walls and ceiling were white; the toilet/sink fixture by the door was stainless steel; the floor was gray. There was one small window – easily covered by my forearm – by the bed and another in the door.

I was already in the jumpsuit, so I sat on the thin sleeping mat, got out my iPod, put in the earbuds, selected the “Gitmo” playlist and turned the volume up. (The guards play a wide selection of American music – mostly dark and heavy stuff
like Drowning Pool and Marilyn Manson – at high volume, at all hours, as a
form of psychological torture for the prisoners.)

I read from the Quran, opening it at random and finding the 36th sûrah (chapter), entitled “Yâ Sîn,” or “O Man.” According to the annotation in my copy, Muslims often recite that chapter in times of adversity to sustain their faith. Herein, Allah explains through the prophet Mohammed that whatever suffering his followers must endure will be relieved if they stick to their faith, while those who did the torturing will be condemned to burn in hell.

I also read – for the first of three times that night – a book of poems written by Guantánamo inmates, seeking a sense of what they feel and think. Despite great discomfort, hardship and fear, some inmates are able to transcend their situation and find hope, and dreams, and a sort of freedom.

My night was only a tiny taste of what the detainees held at Guantánamo experience. The most obvious difference, of course, was that I spent just over seven hours in a replica of a cell sitting in the heart of an American city. Many of the inmates have spent seven years in real cells in a remote base in Cuba. By comparison, my imprisonment was
soft time.

A police officer sat in his patrol car outside, mostly to protect the cell itself and its accompanying gear (a generator, electronic equipment, parts of a disassembled information booth), but I took comfort in his presence, knowing that if any harm befell me, aid would be nearby. The Gitmo detainees have their own uniformed, armed guards, but they are more likely to be tormentors than rescuers.

It was mostly dark in my cell, though a few streetlights shone in. Some detainees’ lawyers claim their clients are suffering permanent psychological damage because the lights in their cells have been kept on 24 hours a
day for years.

I was warm and not hungry, equipped with a sleeping bag and fortified with a good meal at home before going into the cell; the inmates get blankets if they’re lucky and regularly complain about both the quantity and the quality of food served at Gitmo.

I could control the volume on my iPod; the detainees can neither control the volume nor prevent a guard from playing one song over and over for hours on end, as happened on at least one occasion with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” from their 1991 eponymous album.

But the biggest difference, the one that really made it possible for me to handle my time inside, was this: I knew when I would eventually leave. The men held in Guantánamo don’t. Even those whose arrests and incarceration are acknowledged to be mistakes are held for months before being finally released. One man, Maher Rafat al-Quwari, has been cleared for release since February 2007, but as a Palestinian with no passport or other national paperwork, he has nowhere to go, so he stays in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement.

I thought about what it would take to close the prison. Calls for just that have come from such high Bush administration officials as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and even both major-party presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

And yet it remains open, stalled at best by the practical difficulties of moving terrorism suspects into other prisons, or, at worst, held up by people who may not mean what
they say.

Two years ago, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which created a kangaroo-court show-trial system for “trying” detainees in front of military judges (after a nearly identical arrangement created by the Pentagon was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier that year), and granted the United States government the power to indefinitely imprison anyone – even U.S. citizens – without charging them with a crime and without
ever bringing them before an independent civilian judge.

And then there was that passerby who spit into my cell. I wondered if his attitude, amplified by the isolation of being stationed at a remote military base and inflated by being allowed to carry large automatic weapons, might turn him into a rage-filled guard who just might do some of the things prisoners have described.

I wanted to judge him, to accuse him of insensitivity, of sympathizing with those who abuse and torture inmates. But I know as little about that man as we Americans do about the people held at Guantánamo Bay. I don’t know his name and can tell you only the very basic outline of what he did. Without talking to him, without finding out why he did it or where inside him that feeling came from, I cannot honestly “convict” him of anything more serious than common rudeness.

He walks free, though, so I’m less worried about him. The men in Guantánamo do not. Whatever they may be suspected of, why they were arrested, has never been made public, nor have the results of any subsequent investigations. Little wonder, then, that they have not been convicted of anything either. Justice has been slow in coming and for some, may never arrive – at least four of them have committed suicide since the camp opened, and at least 40 have attempted it, often repeatedly.

Five others appear to be seeking death another way. Recently they went in front of a military judge, and after they were told what charges were being laid against them for their alleged involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some of them said they wanted to be “martyred.” But like their fellow inmates, they wait. (On June 12, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuked the Bush administration and ruled that Gitmo detainees are entitled to habeas corpus protections, which means they can challenge their detention without charges.)

I waited too. As people walked by throughout the night, some looked in and a few asked me what I was doing; others didn’t seem to notice the cell was even there, much less occupied. It was impossible to know what
they thought.

I thought of the young men, some as young as 14, kidnapped from the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and sold to U.S. troops as alleged terrorists for thousands of dollars in reward money, who now sit, as I did, in small cells awaiting the next dawn. And when I became cold, tired and cramped, I reminded myself that they are enduring worse and suffering more. Their fortitude was a thin, cold comfort, but it gave me strength.

I discovered during my time in the cell that it is possible to look for so long at one spot – on the floor, the wall, the ceiling – that the spot actually disappears from view. With enough uninterrupted time – or enough detachment from the brutality of the “real world” – it must be possible to make everything you can see just disappear.

What appears in its place? We know some answers, courtesy of the men held at Guantánamo. They have, with the help of their lawyers, published fragments of poetry shedding light on their thoughts, dreams and visions. Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, published last year by the University of Iowa Press, includes 22 poems that made it past the U.S. military’s censors. The one that struck me most deeply in the middle of the night as I read the poems aloud to myself was “O Prison Darkness,” by an author identified only by his first name, Abdulaziz. It ends with these lines: “Even though the bands tighten and seem unbreakable/They will shatter/Those who persist will attain their goal/Those who keep knocking shall gain entry. O crisis, intensify!/The morning is about to break forth.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

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