Two leading Democratic senators on Wednesday asked President Barack Obama to order the Pentagon to stop routinely force-feeding hunger strikers at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo and adopt a model that feeds out of medical necessity, like in the federal prison system.
The letter by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who toured the detention center last month, and Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin directly challenged a U.S. military claim that the so-called “enteral feedings” at the remote prison in Cuba were both humane and modeled after the federal Bureau of Prisons.
The senators invoked a judge’s ruling Monday that called Guantánamo’s forced feedings “a painful, humiliating, and degrading process.”
Prison commanders have defended Guantánamo’s policy of hunger-strike management through forced feeding as a system designed to deny captives the ability to starve in U.S. custody.
Rather than wait until a hunger striker is seriously ill, Navy medical staff use a calculus of weight lost and meals missed to decide when to recommend a feeding to the prison camps commander. The commander, who is not a physician, then orders Army guards to walk a shackled captive to a restraint chair where a Navy nurse snakes a tube up his nose, down the back of his throat and into his stomach.
This is done up to twice a day, for up to two hours each time, to pump a can of Ensure into the captive’s stomach.
As of Wednesday, the military said, 106 detainees were on hunger strike — and 45 of the captives were designated for the feedings. Not all get the tube treatment each time, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, because rather than undergo it some captives drink the nutritional supplement.
The senators letter asked Obama “to direct the Department of Defense to stop conducting such large-scale force-feedings and, where force-feeding is medically necessary to save a detainee’s life, to observe the protections required at U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities. It is our understanding that the U.S. federal prison guidelines for force-feedings include several safeguards and oversight mechanisms that are not in place at Guantánamo Bay.”
A Defense official said Wednesday, there was currently no Pentagon consideration of changing Guantánamo’s hunger strike management strategy. “Until we are ordered to do so, there is no discussion on revisiting the policy,” said a Defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss policy.
Last month, Feinstein challenged the policy in a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. “Hunger strikes are a long known form of non-violent protest aimed at bringing attention to a cause,” she said, “rather than an attempt at suicide.”
Wednesday’s letter from Durbin and Feinstein didn’t fault the troops at Guantánamo but U.S. policy that left captives in long-term legal limbo.
U.S. forces in Cuba “are doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances,” they wrote. But, “they are being asked to carry out an unsustainable policy of indefinite detention because Congress and the Executive Branch have failed to resolve this problem.”
At the prison, Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, a spokesman, said the combined guard and medical force had managed to carry out all forced feedings overnight after sunset and before dawn because it’s Ramadan, when Muslims shun food and drink during daylight hours for a month of prayer and reflection.