Guantánamo is not the hell-hole we imagine

There is a narrative about the prison at Guantánamo Bay that has stubbornly clung to the collective conscience since those first, notorious photographs emerged in early 2002 of the detainees in orange jumpsuits shackled inside open-air cages and ferried to interrogation sessions in wooden wheelbarrows.

Combined with a litany of Red Cross reports alleging abuse and torture inside the jail, and terrible tales of beatings told by many of the 550 inmates who have been released in the past seven years, the common assumption is this: Guantánamo Bay is a modern-day gulag, a filthy, wretched chamber of horrors filled with the screams of innocent men.

Having just returned from Guantánamo, I am compelled to say this: yes, it is unconscionable that men have been detained indefinitely without charge for so long. That is a form of torture in itself. President Obama is right to want to close the jail because it will never shed its image as a symbol of US brutality and extrajudicial zeal.

But Guantánamo has come a long way since the degradations heaped upon inmates in its first years. There are many worse jails inside the US. The irony is that just as the White House insists on shutting it, Guantánamo today - for all the millions of feet of razor wire, the shackles, the dirty protests - is a well-run facility where many of the detainees have rights and privileges that would have been unthinkable when it opened in January 2002.

It is important to remember that even Mr Obama's aides concede that there are some very bad men inside. Well over 100 of its 241 inmates will end up being tried in federal courts or by military commissions. Up to 50 are too dangerous ever to be released.

Let me first compare the now overgrown Camp X-Ray, the outdoor maze of cages that operated for only four months, with the units that house detainees today. It is eerie to wander around Camp X-Ray. Although the cages are now besieged by vines and wild flowers, with yellow butterflies flitting from plant to plant, and boa constrictors hiding in the thick, long grass, it is hard to escape an overwhelming sensation of the ghosts of the past.

Few realise what a pivotal point Camp X-Ray is in modern US history. The story of Guantánamo Bay could have been very different. The image of an America that tortures and torments might never have taken hold, for when the first detainees arrived here in January 2002 - “the worst of the worst” as Donald Rumsfeld declared - Marine Brigadier-General Michael Lehnert, the camp commander, was intent on abiding by the Geneva Conventions.

To the anger of Mr Rumsfeld, in those first days Lehnert admitted officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross. With their help, his troops began to improve the grim and basic cages, which had no toilets. Even today they still contain the tiny faucet shaped hole, linked by a pipe that runs through the cage network, where detainees could urinate. Buckets were added so they did not have to live amid their own waste. Wooden roofs were added to shield them from the constant Cuban heat, and tropical storms. A Muslim chaplain was appointed. Korans and prayerbeads were given to those who wanted them.

In one bizarre episode, a special cage was built away from the main detention area for a detainee who had, as a young woman military guide delicately put it, a chronic self-pleasuring problem that sparked complaints from the other prisoners.

Yet by the end of February, Rumsfeld had sidelined Lenhert. Harsh interrogations became the core mission. Prisoners' rights were gone. A mass hunger strike was mounted. Guantánamo had become a place of attrition and brutality - and its fate was sealed.

Today the US military is so sensitive about the stigma of Guantánamo that it is run fully in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. In Camp IV, for “fully compliant” detainees, they get 18 hours a day of communal “recreation”. Hiding, we watched some playing soccer, until they saw us. They shouted at the guards to take us away. The guards immediately acceded.

It was striking - almost alarming - just how big and healthy the prisoners look. They are offered 5,000 calories of halal food a day, classes in English, Arabic and art, and are called to prayer five times a day. Religious feast nights are observed. They have a medical check-up every week and receive dental treatment. Inside a television beams - live - two Arab channels and a soccer programme, although it stands behind protective perspex. The last one was destroyed when prisoners objected to bare female flesh during a Palmolive soap advert.

This is not the hell-hole so many still believe Guantánamo is. Indeed, the grossly underreported story is a US-run jail that Mr Obama does not want the world to focus on - the makeshift prison on the US airbase at Bagram, Afghanistan. There, more than 600 prisoners, many held for years and all without charge and indefinitely, are packed into conditions far worse than Guantánamo. They have virtually no access to lawyers. Journalists and human rights groups are barred. Earlier this year the Obama Administration opposed in court an attempt by some held there to challenge their detention.

It is Bagram, not Guantánamo, that should trouble the world's conscience.

Tim Reid, Washington correspondent.