— Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), May 13, 2011
Inhofe made this statement Friday during an appearance on “Fox and Friends,” making the case that the detainees housed at Guantanamo Bay should not receive family visits. The Washington Post reported two days earlier that this “unprecedented step” was being considered “to ease the isolation of inmates who in some cases have been held at the U.S. facility for close to a decade.”
Inhofe is a fierce defender of the facility at the Navy base on Cuba — which President Obama has unsuccessfully sought to close — but his comment struck us as an interesting perspective on life at Guantanamo. There are 172 detainees remaining there, 48 of whom are expected to be held indefinitely under the laws of war. Is obesity really the “biggest problem” at the facility?
We asked the senator’s office for documentation. Inhofe spokesman Jared Young first provided us with some news clippings dating from 2006. The Associated Press, for instance, reported that detainees have gained an average of 20 pounds, and most are now "normal to mildly overweight or mildly obese."
In 2006, one inmate was reported to have doubled in weight, to 410 pounds. But that appears to be an unusual case, especially if the average weight gain is 20 pounds and most were underweight when they arrived.
Last year, a Miami Herald reporter spotted a sign warning “Only 1 ice cream for each detainee” on a refrigerator in Camp 6, which has nearly 90 captives. It is unclear if that means too much ice cream was being eaten, but there appears to be little evidence that obesity is a prison-wide problem.
Young asserted that Inhofe “has been to Gitmo on a number of occasions (dating all the way back to shortly after the camp opened). So he has firsthand knowledge of the camp based on what he has witnessed.” He said the senator’s office would provide more thorough documentation than news clippings. But then he no longer responded to queries.
Asked if obesity was a problem at Guantanamo, Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese, a prison camps spokeswoman, replied: “As with most populations, there are individuals who are obese. Same holds true for some detainees at Guantanamo. Medical staff counsel and advise detainees on making healthy meal choices as well as the benefits of exercise, but each detainee ultimately determines what, and how much, they will consume.”
Inhofe’s comment suggested life was pretty good for the inmates, but of course it is still a prison and living conditions are less than ideal. Joint Task Force Guantanamo offers a “virtual visit” — photos and commentary showing the facilities, the food preparation and so forth in the most positive light. It still looks bleak.
Human rights groups cast life there in much harsher terms, as in reports by the Center for Constitutional Rights (2009) and Human Rights Watch (2008). Increasingly, many detainees are living in communal settings but life is rougher for those convicted of war crimes, according to this recent report in the Miami Herald. “Each man spends 12 or more hours a day locked behind a steel door inside a 12-by-8-foot cell equipped with a bed, a sink and a toilet.”
Inmates have participated in numerous hunger strikes to protest conditions at the facility, with the most recent hunger strike confirmed by a Pentagon spokesman last month.
There have also been a number of possible suicides, though questions have been raised about the circumstances. The Associated Press has reported that detainees often attack guards. And almost 100 prisoners were classified by the U.S. military as having psychiatric illnesses, including severe depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Earlier this year, a 48-year-old ex-Taliban commander dropped dead of a heart attack after exercising on an elliptical machine. He had never been charged with a crime during his eight years of detention.
The Pinocchio Test
One can be a defender of the Guantanamo facility and its system of indefinite detention without resorting to ridiculous claims. If only a few inmates have gotten fat, then by any reasonable standard obesity is not a problem at Guantanamo — let alone “the biggest problem.”
Attacks on prison guards, detainee suicides and mental health problems certainly would seem to qualify as far more serious problems. The failure of Inhofe’s staff to respond to our queries after providing only a few inconclusive news clippings is certainly telling.
“During a visit to GITMO, Senator Inhofe was briefed by Rear Adm. David Thomas (commander, Joint Task Force, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) on 2 Feb 2009 that one of the issues they were facing was the number of detainees unhealthily gaining weight. During that time, Inhofe visited all the camps, the detainees, kitchens, fitness areas, discussed hunger strikes and overall health of the detainees, viewed interrogation rooms, and received overall briefing on GITMO and its operations.”
Young added that Inhofe’s office also received a document dated March 23, 2009, that states: “Detainee meals meet their cultural and dietary needs and cost approximately $3 million per year. Each detainee receives 6,500-6,800 calories per day and have six menus to choose from. Feast meals are served two times per week.”
We are still not convinced. Inhofe appears to be making his statement based on out-of-date information. Reese, the Gitmo spokeswoman, this week said: “Three hot halal meals per day — with 4500-5000 calories a day — are served to detainees in each camp." Young said Inhofe is planning to visit the facility again in “the near future.”
Watch Inhofe make his comments: