The Guantanamo Thirteen

Packing on the pounds at America’s toughest prison.

Is America the only country in the world that could run a prison camp where prisoners gain weight? Between April 2002 and March 2003, the Joint Task Force returned to Afghanistan 19 of the approximately 664 men (from 42 countries) who have been held in the detention camps at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay. Upon leaving, it has been reported, each man received two parting gifts: a brand new copy of the Koran as well as a new pair of jeans. Not the act of generosity that it might first appear, the jeans, at least, turned out to be a necessity. During their stay (14-months on average), the detainees (nearly all of them) had gained an average of 13 pounds.

In America, where 13 pounds is what many of our citizens’ chins weigh, the prisoners’ slightly enlarged girth might seem negligible. But given the low-bit-resolution video footage we have seen of stooped and shackled men in orange jumpsuits, and the collective protests from international human rights groups, the revelation that the men detained from last year’s war would leave the Guantanamo prison camps sporting a larger pair of trousers than the ones they showed up with comes as something of a surprise. So I called one of the prison camps at Guantanamo (also known at GTMO, pronounced GIT-mo) to inquire, and was put in touch with Chief Warrant Officer (CW4) James Kluck. (The official voice of GTMO was clearly quite happy to tell the story of weight gain among the detainees—it’s evidence, perhaps, that the prisoners’ treatment can’t have been so bad if they managed to put on a few pounds.) CW4 Kluck, 55, a reservist, is in charge of feeding the detainees as well as the 1,780 soldiers at GTMO, and he arrived there perversely well-prepared for his work. In civilian life he ran the food and beverage program at the University of Michigan.

Though Kluck calls his crew of 46 “cooks,” none of the meals are actually cooked on the base, just reheated. The food is delivered on a barge by a subcontractor, Atlantic Coast Contracting, Inc., which doesn’t cook it either. Atlantic ferries the food from Jacksonville, Fla., where it is bought from SYSCO, a heavy-hitting supplier to institutions like prisons and universities (including the University of Michigan). SYSCO does cook the food, and the meals are certified halal—adhering to Islamic law—at SYSCO’s plant; that paperwork is later double-checked by GTMO’s Muslim chaplain.

Kluck’s cooks only have what he calls “visual contact” with the medium-security detainees, who live communally in four barracks and are served in groups of as many as 10. They merely plate the food and the Military Police serve it. The cooks don’t have any contact at all with the high-security-risk detainees. These men are fed alone in their cells and the food—two hot meals a day, at breakfast and dinner, rather than the three given to the other prisoners—is delivered by a pair of MPs. Lunch on the high-security wing is a soldier’s combat ration, otherwise known as MRE (Meals-Ready-to-Eat). Kluck’s crew unwraps the rations, removing the plastic wrap from the multigrain fruit bars, as well as from the plastic sporks. “Apparently the prisoners can cause all kinds of damage, stuffing the wrappers into locks and that sort of mischief,” says Kluck.

So what exactly does the reheated food consist of? The detainees eat a relatively spartan menu that revolves around Asian-accented stews of beef, chicken, and fish. And, Kluck insists, “The detainees eat the same food as the troops, except that the troops’ menu is on a 5-week rotation, and the detainees’ menu rotates every two weeks. The JTF [Joint Task Force] gets more variety.” When Kluck says everybody eats the same food he means—not to put too fine a point on it—that everything the detainees eat is available at the buffet at the soldiers’ canteen. The reverse is not true. Though the diets devised for both the JTF and the detainees were approved by GTMO’s resident nutritionist, the JTF 5-week menu also includes institutional dining terrors like Chicken Cordon Bleu and Turkey a la King, never mind fried chicken. (It hardly seems surprising that the troops are also struggling with their weight.)

In addition to the stews and multigrain fruit bars, Kluck also serves both groups of detainees a host of legumes: black beans, lentils, kidney beans, and chickpeas. None of this food sounds overly fattening. The cooks do serve carbohydrates—mainly rice—at lunch and dinner, and the New York Times reported that detainees had developed “a fondness for bagels.” (I ran the veracity of this reporting by Kluck, who replied: “Not that I can see. They don’t seem to like bagels more than the pita bread, baguettes or sliced wheat bread we also serve.”) Kluck says that medium-security detainees are provided “additional servings,” if they request them, and he adds that an incentive program that encourages good behavior revolves around the dispensing of cakes and dates and other treats. But it’s unlikely that carbohydrates by themselves (even the occasional heapin’ helpin’) can account for all the weight.

Human rights critics insist there’s another explanation. “Life as a Talib conscript was probably hell,” explains John Sifton, an attorney who works in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization. “Those guys showed up [at GTMO] half-starved, some of them probably hadn’t had a proper hot meal since the war began. It wouldn’t be hard to put on weight.”

Lisa Dorfman, a nutritionist who has counseled inmates in federal prisons in and around Dade County, Fla., says that in prison, food isn’t just about calories; it takes on a special significance. “When you are incarcerated, food becomes one of the few sources of social pleasure available to you. Meals are an opportunity to communicate with other people. Not insignificantly, it also becomes an outlet, like sex,” she says.

Dorfman explains that overeating, hoarding, and what she calls Night Eating Syndrome are a real problem and a significant cause of dramatic weight gain among prisoners she has counseled. “We found that most inmates gain an enormous amount of weight when they first arrive in an institution. They tend to be depressed, lonely, and stressed out and alienated from loved ones,” says Dorfman. “It’s kind of like being in college your first semester.”

I ask CW4 Kluck if, based on his professional experience in civilian life at the University of Michigan, he had expected the detainees to gain weight immediately after their arrival at GTMO. He laughs at first, “Oh, yes: the Freshman Fifteen,” but then resumes his strictly business manner. “I’m not sure whether there were any expectations with these guys.”