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Kristin Roberts / Reuters | October 29 2006

Many of the 435 suspected terrorists held in concrete and metal prisons on a U.S. military base in Cuba might never go home.

Detained but not charged in one of five camps along the cactus and palm tree-lined shore, they were captured in the U.S. war on terrorism -- a conflict with few borders, hard-to-identify enemies and no foreseeable end.

The U.S. military has freed hundreds of men, mostly captured in Afghanistan. Of those still here, the Pentagon decided some 120, and perhaps more, could be sent home, although that process has been slowed by reluctance from receiving nations.

But more than 300 others, including 14 transferred in September to Guantanamo from secret overseas prisons, could remain in U.S. military detention until they die.

"Yes, they could be held for the duration of their lives," said Cully Stimson, the Defense Department's assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, on one of his regular trips to the base last week.

Some, including Stimson, say that as far as detention goes, life inside Guantanamo isn't so bad.

"If U.S. prisoners saw the detention regime these people are in, they'd be knocking down the door to get into Gitmo," he said, using the nickname for the U.S. naval base on land leased from Communist Cuba.

After criticism for early detention practices, Guantanamo has been praised this year by some European officials as a facility comparable to the best European prisons. Many also still say the prison should close, and Britain's foreign secretary recently called it ineffective and damaging.

Guantanamo has changed dramatically from the early days of the infamous "Camp X-Ray" -- exposed, chain-link-fenced cells where detainees were kept when the Pentagon first began shipping prisoners from Afghanistan in 2002. Camp X-Ray is closed, overtaken by tall grasses, snakes and spider webs.

SEGREGATED BY COMPLIANCE

Gitmo's detention buildings hide behind multiple rows of 12-foot chain-link fences covered in green tarpaulins and topped with tight spirals of barbed wire. Old wooden and newer steel watchtowers dot the perimeter.

Detainees are segregated by their level of "compliance," and most are considered not fully compliant.

That label determines what color uniform they wear -- from white for fully compliant to tan and orange for different levels of noncompliance. It determines whether a man lives alone or with nine others, as well as what kind of toothbrush he gets and whether the mat on top of his concrete or metal bed is 1-inch thick or four.

One of the few things not affected by compliance level is the daily "voluntary" interrogation.

A detainee last week sat on a blue couch, his forearms on his knees, staring at the rug on the floor. He spoke little to his interrogator and civilian translator.

Others, according to a lead interrogator, are more talkative. Some sit in reclining chairs. Interrogators frequently offer cooperative detainees coffee or fast food as an incentive to open up.

But even those who cooperate and are compliant are chained to the floor by at least one ankle shackle.

Guards always wear protective vests and remove their names from their uniforms. They say they have grown accustomed to receiving insults and having urine and feces thrown at them.

Many live by a simple rule of thumb. "There are no medium-security terrorists."

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