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Detainees Send, Receive Mail Via Joint Task Force, Red Cross

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 23, 2002 – One of the first offers detainees receive at Camp Delta, on Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is to send a postcard to family and friends to let them know where they are and that they're safe.

But the mail doesn't stop there, according to Army Reserve Master Sgt. Debra A. Tart of the 160th Military Police Battalion Adjutant's Office.

"Our goal is to keep the communications channels open between the detainees and their family members and friends," said Tart, through whom all incoming and outgoing detainee mail flows. "We ensure the detainees are allowed to write and receive letters. Some don't want to write, but we have to give them that opportunity."

She strives to get mail to and from detainees as quickly as possible. "We keep the process flowing. Mail isn't held in one place unnecessarily," said Tart, who's a social worker in civilian life.

Tart, who arrived on Memorial Day, said records show that detainees sent out more than 1,600 pieces of mail since they started arrived in January and have received more than 300 pieces back. Camp Delta has 564 detainees.

"I'm only talking about detainee mail that's been handled by the Joint Task Force," she emphasized. "The detainees are not limited to our system. They can also send and receive mail through the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"Once the International Red Cross receives a letter from a detainee or from a family member or friend, the letter comes in here and we route it. Once it's approved for delivery to the detainee or family member, it's returned to the International Red Cross and they distribute it."

It's not unusual that many of the detainees haven't received or sent mail, she said. "Many people who are incarcerated in the states and many service members here haven't received any mail," Tart noted.

Army Reserve Maj. Steve Robinson, the 160th's executive officer, said detainees arriving at Camp Delta seem to figure there's not much use in writing letters because they're not going anyplace. "So they won't write for a while," he said. "Then they see or hear of other detainees getting incoming mail and realize that the U.S. forces will allow them to send and receive mail."

Detainees can send up to six pieces of mail per month through the Camp Delta system.

"We've also received parcels for detainees," Tart noted. If the package contains something detainees are not allowed to have in their living units, however, it's stored for them, she added.

The mail is screened before it reaches Tart. There's a multilayered process that ensures mail going to the detainees isn't dangerous and won't create any kind of problem.

The International Red Cross provides "Red Cross messages" for the detainees and their families. It's a sheet of paper folded in half. "On one side, the detainee writes the address where he's detained and then the family address," said Daniel Cavoli, International Committee of the Red Cross team leader at Camp Delta. "He has about 30 lines to write family news only.

"The family news is of a private nature, but it's not confidential. The ICRC collects the messages and gives them to the U.S. military for censorship for security reasons. And, some messages could be inappropriate to send to the family," Cavoli said.

When the military returns the messages to the ICRC, they're sent to ICRC headquarters in Geneva. From there, the messages are sent to the national Red Cross society in the detainees' home countries and delivered to his family. The process is reversed for letters from detainees' families.

Cavoli said detainees are allowed to write as often as they want, but deliveries take a long time because of the censorship and delivery process.

"We like for the detainees to wait for an answer to their letters before they write another message. But basically, there are no restrictions on the number of messages a detainee writes," he said. "Allowing detainees to correspond with the outside world is also a provision of the Geneva Conventions."

The purpose of Red Cross messages is to ensure that detainees can keep in touch with their families, Cavoli said.

"They can tell their families, 'I'm all right. I'm alive. I'm a detainee. Please don't worry and write me back with some news of the family,'" he said. "Knowing where everybody is and what they're doing is restoring and maintaining family links."

Camp Delta officials encourage detainees to write to their families and friends. "We're trying to get more people to help, including helping detainees write letters," Tart said. "They're not allowed to keep things like pencils in their units."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Reserve Master Sgt. Debra A. Tart holds some of the day's mail for detainees at Camp Delta, Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She said camp officials encourage detainees to keep in touch with their families and friends in whatever country they come from. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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