Header art by Sunless Design

Inside the Gaming Library at Gitmo, America's Controversial Military Prison

When detainees need relief, they turn to Harry Potter and PS3 games.

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Jul 24 2017, 3:52pm

Header art by Sunless Design

At Play in the Carceral State is a week-long series investigating play in, around, and about prisons and prison culture. Learn more here.

In 2002, the United States government detained a Mauritanian man, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and sent him to Gitmo. As Slahi waited to be charged (he never was), he penned a 446-page memoir that detailed the many strategies he employed to endure his years of confinement.

In it, he talks extensively of his fascination with games, an interest he developed only after his arrival to the detention facilities.

"Before prison, I didn't know the difference between a pawn and the rear end of a knight, nor was I really big gamer. But I found in chess a very interesting game, especially the fact that a prisoner has total control over his pieces, which gives him some confidence back."

Slahi is one of the roughly 780 detainees known to have passed through the Gitmo detention facilities; as of July 2017, 41 remain. Over the past 15 years, many detainees have requested and read books from the Detainee Library. Journalists have actively documented what titles appear on the shelves, and in recent years, the inventory has grown to include not only DVDs, but also PS3 games.

But the library remains a labyrinth, a facility full of thorny questions. This summer, Waypoint sent me to the Detainee Library, to figure out what happened to the games at Gitmo. From that trip and from my previous research, the following is a short list of everything I know about the Detainee Library.

The Detainee Library at Gitmo. All photos by author.

There's a library for detainees being held at Gitmo.

On September 13, 2013, Michael Morisy filed a Freedom of Information Act requesting a "copy of guidelines for accepting donations of books for Gitmo inmates." In 2017, after a bit of a wait, he received JDG Procedure #40. There's this one sentence that I read and re-read, because on the surface, it seems like such a simple declaration.

Detainee Library provides books, magazines, newspapers, DVDs/CDs, board games, and electronic games.

Commander John Robinson, Director of Public Affairs of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, tells me in a letter that those "electronic games" are PS3 games, which were added to the Detainee Library in the late summer of 2011.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is one of the games available to detainees.

Detainees never come into the library.

I raise my hand in the Detainee Library. The building I am in—the building that houses all the PS3 games for detainees—feels a little bit like the trailer in South Carolina, where I took my Gifted and Talented classes in elementary school. So, surrounded by men in military garb, I feel very much like a student. It helps that I wrote my Master's thesis on this very building—the Guantanamo Bay Detainee Library. But there are still so many things I don't know.

I turn to the guy giving the tour, a twentysomething who tells me to call him the Detainee Programs Officer. I ask him about the PS3 games.

He says, "They request the games just like a book. They can have up to ten in their possession to share with their communal bloc. Once they want to return the games, they can return them in exchange for one for one basis."

Members of the Joint Task Force who joined the tour of the Detainee Library

The Detainee Programs Officer has been here—at Gitmo—for a little over a month, and I've spent over 2.5 years studying the protocols, policies, and practices of the Library. We spend thirty four minutes in this space that has kept me on my toes for over thirty months. The land that we stand on has been under the control of the U.S. government since 1903.

The library isn't accepting board game donations from anyone.

Standing in the library, I asked the Detainee Programs Officer whether or not board games might be added to the collection.

"We're constantly trying to increase the amount of games that we have," he tells me, adding that "Some of the games have to go through the screening process, just because of the material that they have in them. But if they are approved we are constantly trying to grow our inventory through games."

Yet the library offers no board games—not chess or checkers, let alone more complex games. And when I push on this, the officer tells me that the only games the library deals with are PS3 games.

"It progressed, just like the systems did," says another trooper. "It started with Nintendo. They actually had a Nintendo 64 system; it was the first one received, and it just progressed as they went outdated. Common knowledge right now is that they're coming out with PS4, that's the next migration, because these are becoming obsolete. So they progressed."

I ask plainly if they're planning to shift to the PS4, but the duo simply reiterates that for now, the detainee library will continue to operate with PS3 games.

Additional PS3 games in the Detainee Library.

Though I see none, board games have been part of the detention facility for years.

I am in the Detainee Library for 34 minutes. I see no board games.

Yet in his memoir, Known and Unknown, former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld notes that "detainees had access to a basketball and volleyball court, ping-pong tables, and board games." Kyndra Miller Rotunda, a former officer in the JAG Corps, echoed his sentiments and in her own book, Honor Bound: Inside the Guantanamo Trials, criticized lawyers for misrepresenting their clients' conditions. "If they believed that the conditions were so deplorable, " she asked, "why did they raise menial issues like speeding up the mail and purchasing checker board games for detainees?"

Games make multiple appearances in the Review of Department's Compliance with President's Executive Order on Detainee Conditions of Confinement, a document that was prepared in 2009 in order to brief then President Obama on the state of Gitmo. The Review—frequently called the Walsh Report, after one of it's primary compilers, Admiral Walsh—states, "Under DoDD 2310.01E, detainees will be treated humanely and respected as human beings. Additional reference material may be found in GPW (Art. 38, 98), GCC (Art. 94, 125), and AR 190-8 (6-7), which provide that detainees are encouraged to participate in intellectual, educational, and recreational pursuits, as well as sports and games."

Though the hyperlinks to the appendices of the Walsh Report broke long ago, the Wayback Machine has on archive a image series of images labeled "detainee items" that show some of the board games provided to detainees back in 2009: checkers, backgammon, and chess among them.

But if there are board games at Gitmo, why aren't they stacked alongside the PS3 games in the Detainee Library?

I email the Joint Task Force this question. At first, no one responds. Later, Commander Robinson writes this response:

The Joint Detention Group began providing electronic games to detainees in 2008 to provide mental stimulation as part of the overall mission to ensure humane treatment. As technology evolved, systems were upgraded from the Nintendo to the PS3 between 2011 and 2012. Currently, both JDG Detainee Programs and individual detainee lawyers provide games to be used on consoles provided by the JDG. Board games haven't been provided by Detainee Programs since 2007 or 2008. Detainees are not using board games right now due to a lack in interest. The board games are in storage.

When I ask how this interest is determined and what would happen to the games in storage if the detention center closed, Robinson refers me back to his initial response.

Maybe the games really are in storage.

When Waypoint asked Wells Dixon, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, what he thought might have happened to the board games in the detention facilities, he speculated that the Joint Task Force might be telling the truth.

"It is unlikely in my opinion that JTF-Gitmo took away board games or books or DVDs or anything like that to make life worse for the men who are detained there," he said to Waypoint over the phone. "My suspicion is, my guess is, that the detainees were not asking for the board games as frequently, because, when President Obama came into office, they then had a greater ability to get DVDs and video games and things like that. So, it was something new."

Dixon emphasized that novelty has a great deal of value for detainees. "One of the things that we heard from our clients throughout the history of Guantanamo is that they get tired of using the same materials over and over again. I don't know a single detainee, who wants anything to do with Harry Potter at this point, right? Because, they've all read Harry Potter innumerable times over the course of the past fifteen years. Not that they don't like Harry Potter. They loved Harry Potter. Harry Potter saved many men from going crazy, particularly the 2005, 2006 time frame. So J.K. Rowling ought to be proud of that."

"I suspect the same is true of board games? You can only play Monopoly or Risk or whatever it is they were playing—games of chance, I guess—without getting tired of them. I suspect that's the case."

Many lawyers representing ex-detainees keep in touch with their clients, on Facebook, Twitter, or even text message. A few minutes after calling Waypoint to reflect on what might've happened to the games at Gitmo, Dixon received an update and called to convey this reflection—from a detainee, who abstained from gameplay during his detention:

"I've spoken to one of my clients, who was formerly detained and didn't play these games himself, and what he said was that they had chess and checkers and there was also poker and dominoes, but by late 2010, those games were either removed from the library or the detainees weren't requesting them anymore, but it's not entirely clear. I asked him if these games were popular with these other guys. He remembers that people used to play dominos in his block."

[NB: Gitmo consists of a series of camps, and the some of those camps have blocks of cells, which include a centralized communal space, where "compliant" detainees can convene and talk to each other. But then there's Camp 7, and no one at the Joint Task Force Public Affairs Office will go on record, describing the layout of what's available. Many do not know—as the facility is run by the C.I.A.]

The future of the detainee games library is uncertain.

Dixon emphasized that getting a game of any sort going is substantially harder, now that there are so few detainees left. "One of the things that I would note now with respect to board games is that in 2006, 2007, even 2008 or 2009, there are only 41 detainees, who remain, 15 of whom are high value detainees, who are kept separate from everybody else, and then you have the remaining 25, 26, who are spread out within the blocs, so it's a lot harder, I'd think…"

"Given where we are with the administration and given the awareness that not a single one detainee has left since the end of the Obama Administration," he added, "the situation is bad right now. It's quiet, but I wouldn't take that as a sign of contentment by any means."

The final thing I know about the Detainee Library is...

However much I might choose to dig, I will never uncover all its stories and scandals, its policies and practices.

All I can do is keep track of my own unanswered questions:

  • What might happen to all those games in storage in the unlikely event that Donald Trump signed an Executive Order closing the Joint Task Force's operations in Gitmo?
  • How might game culture at Gitmo change if the U.S. government started to send female detainees or captured ISIS combatants there?
  • If chess and checkers were once deemed appropriate, would it ever be conceivable that the JTF would accept tabletop strategy war-games?
  • Just how much has the U.S. government and Red Cross spent on buying video games and board games for the Detainee Library between January 2002 and June 2017?
  • In the coming decades, will we see board games and video games that model Gitmo and include the Detainee Library in their design?
  • What games have the families of detainees played, as they've waited for the return of their loved ones, as they've tried to distract themselves from the gaping hole in their households?

And there are dozens more from there. But there's one question I'd pose to you, readers of Waypoint, who have more game knowledge collectively than I ever will:

If you started from scratch, tell me over on Waypoint's forums what kind of game library would you build for the remaining 41 detainees at Gitmo? (And please, whatever you do, don't give me some screenshot from Prison Architect.)

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