Life at Camp Justice, Guantanamo Bay

Camp_Justice_2SMU Dedman School of Law Prof. Chris Jenks is visiting Naval Station Guantanamo Aug. 11-15. This is the second blog of the series.

Escorts for the Office of Military Commission separate the various entities — prosecution, defense, victims’ families, media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) —to take them to different sections of the base. For some of us that means Camp Justice.

Camp Justice, and indeed all of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, can seem a bit surreal at times.

The camp was set up as a temporary facility, with a series of hardstand tents and living trailers set atop asphalt, but it’s existed more than 10 years now.

What one thinks of the setup is a matter of perspective. When compared to a civilian home or hotel room, it’s not great. But when compared to regions of military deployment like Iraq or Afghanistan, it seems fine.

Tents newestOur escorts tell us members of the media are also at Camp Justice but staying in a different section. They also tell us that if NGO reps want to interact with the media or vice versa, they can do so only via request from the escorts, which I find odd.

Stranger still is when our escorts tell us to avoid the U.S. military members on the base — if we “don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.” What a missed opportunity for the NGOs to learn about the U.S. military while in a deployed setting.

For the groups staying at Camp Justice, there’s a tent for males and a tent for females, each with seven beds, some lighting, a few power outlets and a small refrigerator. And while there are some plywood partitions, it’s definitely communal living.

About 100 yards away are segregated laundry, bathroom and shower trailers which weren’t as well equipped as the ones I used while deployed in Bosnia and Iraq in 1994 and 2004, respectively.

Sinks and showers, for example, have only one knob — on and off. So when you turn on the water it’s initially freezing but then starts to warm up — before becoming scalding. I think the conditions are more austere at Gitmo than elsewhere because no one envisioned the need for these “temporary” facilities to last so long, especially given everything at Gitmo being difficult to acquire (water and power, for instance) due to the strained relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

Behold the “banana rat”

The oddest thing about the tents and trailers is they’re kept FREEZING cold. Not quite meat-locker cold, but close. The reason? To discourage nocturnal visitors, namely the “banana rat.” Technically they’re rodents, not rats, but it’s more important to know that Guantanamo has an overabundance of them.

After the first teeth-chatteringly cold night (during which we expect furry visitors) many of my fellow NGO reps ask our escorts to take them to the Navy Exchange so they can buy sleeping bags. (Shout-out to the National Institute of Military Justice for leaving me a sleeping bag in advance.) At least one NGO rep spent the week sleeping in a winter coat, even with a sleeping bag. Not exactly what you expect when visiting the Caribbean in August.

The advantage of tent living at Camp Justice is that they’re right by the Military Commissions Courtroom. The disadvantage is that they’re near nothing else, most notably, food. As a result our escorts drive us around the base to find something to eat. Meals are generally at the Navy dining facility a couple of miles away. And at each meal the NGO members are confronted with the military’s dress code.

Some in the military believe that after 10 years of combat operations, basic appearance standards have slipped. That backlash has led to “attire guidelines” and positioning of a service member (henceforth known as “the fashion police”) at each dining facility to ensure compliance. All of this is baffling to the NGO reps.

During one visit to the dining facility the fashion police initially denied a female NGO rep entrance because she was wearing pants without pockets (which is prohibited because … ?). Another trip the fashion police denied entry to a male NGO rep because he was wearing a plain white V-neck shirt. But once we manage to run the fashion gauntlet, we appreciate that the food in the dining facility is good and cheap.

cactusDuring our drives around Gitmo I’m surprised by how brown and desert-like the area is, complete with cactus.

Finally, in terms of things I didn’t expect at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the military by necessity is utilizing a host of green energy sources.

There are four large wind turbines, which provide a quarter of the base’s electricity.

wind turbines

vehiclePlus, many of the street lamps at Gitmo are solar powered. But my favorite example of sustainability there is the use of not just electric cars, but electric cars with a solar panel mounted to the roof. — C.J.


Next up: How and why the U.S. has a navy base in Cuba.



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Jenks’ tweets from #Gitmo

Watching military commissions @Gitmo is akin to watching a slow-moving train wreck. And the wreck has an endless number of cars.

As @SMU Prof. Chris Jenks (@ChrisJenks_SMU) finishes his upcoming blog reports for @SMULawSchool about military proceedings at Guantanamo, check out some of his recent tweets.

chris jenks (ChrisJenks_SMU) on Twitter



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Down the Rabbit Hole: Notes From Camp Justice, Guantanamo Bay


SMU Dedman School of Law Prof. Chris Jenks is visiting Naval Station Guantanamo Aug. 11-15:

The only way to reach Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Cuba, also known as “Gitmo,” is via a U.S. military flight from Andrews Air Force Base (AFB) in Maryland, just outside Washington D.C. The government operates a flight from Andrews AFB to Gitmo on Saturday mornings and from Gitmo to Andrews Saturday afternoons.

Our passenger terminal group could jokingly be referred to as a “Star Wars bar scene” — an extremely eclectic mix of folks who would not normally interact. There are military and civilian attorneys and paralegals for the prosecution, defense and convening authority. There are family members of those killed on 9/11. And there are representatives from a wide range of non-governmental organizations, many human rights-based, and the media.

Having served in the U.S. Army for 20 years I’m accustomed to how the military operates. So I wasn’t terribly surprised by the requirement to be at the passenger terminal before 6 a.m. — for a flight departing at 10 a.m. Many of the others here aren’t fully embracing their introduction to the time-honored military practice of “hurry up and wait.” (I’m confident they’ll have many opportunities to practice.)

Air Force One, Andrews Air Force Base

Air Force One, Andrews Air Force Base

Despite an unfortunate lack of any food, and more importantly, no coffee, there are worse places to sit around than Andrews AFB. Our view on this day is Air Force One, which was there awaiting the arrival of President Obama.

We eventually do all the normal things done at an airport, just with the military. We receive a boarding pass, go through security, load a bus and drive along the tarmac.

The first-timers to Gitmo, me included, weren’t sure what kind of plane we would be on. Turns out flights to Gitmo are on Sun Country Airlines, a civilian U.S. airline. We’re told to sit anywhere on the plane after the first seven rows, which are reserved for 9/11 victims’ family members. Because there were so many victims (2,976) the family members who want to observe proceedings enter a lottery from which a small number are chosen to visit Gitmo for a week.

Other than flying on an airline no one had ever heard of, the roughly three-hour flight was uneventful. We land in Cuba, “the pearl of the Antilles,” at a small military airfield, Guantanamo Naval Air Station.

Wide Shot Models

Historic plane models and photos at the Guantanamo naval base airport are not to be touched. See sign below.

WarningAs we leave the plane to head to a nearby hanger to be checked on or off yet another list, we’re hit with a wave of tropical heat but fortunately there’s considerable breeze. Inside the hangar are models of planes and historical photographs — along with the first clue that the military may be taking the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) a bit too seriously; see the sign at left. (Sadly, my efforts to goad a representative of the ACLU into violating the prohibition to prove its overreach were not successful.)

Flag on Hill

Tall U.S. flags fly around the naval station, where an old cannon represents the base’s Spanish-American War origins.

We load into vans and head to a ferry, which takes us from one side of Guantanamo Bay to the other. As we approach Naval Station Guantanamo Bay we see the first of the exceedingly tall and large U.S. flags that fly around the base. We also see an old cannon, harkening to the base’s origins following the Spanish-American War, which I’ll write more about later.

Once we reach the other side it’s a short drive until we reach our destination, the Expeditionary Legal Complex, where the military commissions take place. — C.J.

Military CommissionsNext up: Life at Camp Justice.


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Prof. Chris Jenks at Guantanamo

SMU Dedman School of Law Assistant Professor Chris Jenks, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic, is visiting Naval Station Guantanamo in Cuba Aug. 11-15 on behalf of the National Institute of Military Justice. Prof. Jenks will observe military commission proceedings involving detainees alleged to have planned the 9/11 attacks — and will blog about the experience.

Prior to joining SMU, Prof. Jenks worked at the Pentagon as a Judge Advocate, serving as chief of the U.S. Army’s international law branch. As a military prosecutor he was lead counsel on the Army’s first counter-terrorism case, a fully contested classified court-martial of a National Guard soldier who attempted to aid the al-Qaida terrorist network.

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