The U.S. military is rigging up satellite television service and distributing Sudoku puzzles in Guantanamo prison cells even as the Obama administration works towards a goal of emptying them of detainees.
The amusements are aimed at providing mental stimulation for the 240 remaining captives, whom human rights monitors and defense lawyers have said were being driven mad by years of isolation at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists.
Plans were made as long as two years ago to add television and group recreation facilities, said Navy Commander Jeff Hayhurst, who led journalists on a tour on Sunday of the remote prison located on a U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba.
But because of logistical challenges at the prison, some of the plans are just now being implemented as the clock ticks down toward President Barack Obama's January deadline to shut down the detention operation.
"Construction here is very difficult," said Hayhurst, who functions as the deputy warden.
Obama, who has called Guantanamo a blot on America's human rights record and an al-Qaeda recruiting tool, sent a team of investigators to check out the detention camp in February.
Their conclusions echoed what the International Committee of the Red Cross has been saying for years -- that prisoners in the one-man cells needed more opportunities for social interaction and mental stimulation.
Eighty or so well-behaved captives who live in group dorms now have the chance to watch live satellite television, choosing from among three sports channels, al-Jazeera's English channel and another Middle Eastern channel, Hayhurst said.
Satellite TV will be extended to the medium and maximum security camps within a month, he said. "We vet all of our channels very, very closely to ensure there is nothing that would incite the individuals here," he added.
The group-camp captives have long been allowed to eat communal meals on picnic tables outside their dorms and play soccer and basketball together in a central recreation yard.
The medium-security Camp 6 has recently been reconfigured to allow groups of prisoners to play soccer together outside and mingle at steel tables at the center of their cellblocks.
About half of Guantanamo's 240 prisoners are now in some kind of communal environment, Hayhurst said.
In the maximum-security Camp 5, a concrete hulk with one-man cells, prisoners are now allowed occasional group "feast meals," seated on the floor in adjoining outdoor recreation pens, Hayhurst said. They are separated by fences, but are still able to dine and pray together.
"If they have the choice between socializing and not ... they're probably not doing other things that we don't want them to do, such as assaulting guards," Hayhurst said.
Prisoners now have access to newspapers, albeit censored, choosing from among USA Today and two Arabic-language papers. Some attend classes in Arabic, Pashto, English and art once or twice a week, often wearing ankle chains bolted to the floor.
All get sketch pads, colored chalk and puzzle books now, Hayhurst said. Copies of a Sudoku collection compiled by New York Times puzzle master Will Shortz could be seen lying on the cots in some cells.
Hayhurst said that for first time in 20 months, the camp recently went four whole days without any assaults on guards. But the respite was followed by four assaults in a single day involving urine-feces cocktails, the weapon of choice among Guantanamo's inmates.
If they have the choice between socializing and not ... they're probably not doing other things that we don't want them to do, such as assaulting guards
Navy Commander Jeff Hayhurst
According to reports, some 17 Uighurs Muslims from China, awaiting release from the detention camp are also being allowed to order fast-food takeout from the base and have access to a phone booth for weekly calls. The detainees have also been given laptops and web training as they await a country to grant them asylum.
''As you know, detainees are leaving this place,'' Army Lt. Col. Miguel Mendez who oversees detainee classes, said to the Miami Herald. "We're getting them computer classes to prepare for their return.''
A federal judge last year ordered that the Uighurs be set free after reviewing the U.S. military's reasons for holding them in habeas corpus petitions that reached the U.S. District Court in Washington by Supreme Court order.
As devout Muslims, they fear religious persecution in their homeland, in part because of the stigma of having been held at Gitmo for allegedly getting paramilitary training in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
We're getting them computer classes to prepare for their return
Army Lt. Col. Miguel Mendez