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How Much Has Really Changed at America's 'Black Prison'?

President Barack Obama may have outlawed torture, but in a secret prison at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, prisoners continue to languish in cells the size of closets and be subjected to aggressive sleep deprivation.

According to a new report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, shockingly little has changed in the way the United States treats its detainees in Afghanistan, particularly at its infamous "Tor Prison" -- or "Black Prison" -- at Bagram. Despite repeated complaints of sleep deprivation at the base, the practice remains in place. Just as the American war in Afghanistan grinds on, so does rough treatment of its prisoners.

The reality of life at Bagram stands in stark contrast to the principles outlined at the outset of the Obama administration. "The message we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly; we are going to do so effectively; and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals," Obama said in outlawing harsh interrogation methods in January, 2009.

While the worst abuses of the Bush era have been curtailed, the differences between Obama and his predecessor are ones of degree, not kind. "There was a camera on my face and I think they were watching it all the time because whenever I closed my eyes, they would come very fast and knock very hard and shout at me," a young man who had been taken to the Tor jail told AAN. Meanwhile, the air conditioner ran incessantly. "They switched the air conditioning on and would leave it on for hours and hours; outside it was cold and I was shivering, freezing; my legs were shaking and I couldn't keep my teeth still." The jail in which he was held was so small that he was never able to stretch out his legs.

Four and a half years after the putative closure of the CIA's network of black site prisons, the facility under American control at Bagram bears an eerie resemblance to the illegal jails of yore. That, of course, is an idea that American flacks vigorously dispute. "There simply is no, as you put it, ‘black site,'" DOD spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told the AAN report's author, Kate Clark. "Rumours and myth-making to the contrary simply do not withstand intellectual rigor. To be sure, we have a number of locations which are classified for obvious security reasons, for transiting and screening (which, as you know, is recognized and specifically mentioned by [the] Geneva [Conventions]), but they are not undisclosed or ‘secret.'"

The U.S. government's reasoning, then, argues that the Tor prison fails to qualify as a so-called black site because the ICRC and the Afghan government are aware of its existence. Nominally, the Afghan government should also be in control of the facility. In March of this year, the United States and Afghanistan reached an agreement over control of detention facilities at Bagram to the Afghan government. Nonetheless, the exact involvement of the United States in detainee operations at Bagram remains hazy at best. According to the AAN, the United States retains the ability to conduct interrogations at Bagram, and prisoners describe an environment in which U.S. guards continue to oversee the jails, despite the formal handover of control. All in all, the portrait that emerges of operations at Bagram is one of gradual change, marked not by a drastic break with the past but by a slow evolution in which yesterday's policies are carried over into the present day under the mantle of change.

Not long ago, the facility at Bagram fit Breasseale's definition of undisclosed and secret, qualifying clearly as a black site. Until the New York Times revealed the prison's existence in November, 2009, Tor functioned as yet another island in the archipelago of American terror prisons. Run by the Joint Special Operations Command and not the CIA, the prison escaped Obama's order to shut clandestine prisons, a directive that only applied to the spy agency. But human rights activists felt the prison violated the spirit of the administration's detainee policy and subsequently blasted the White House for allowing the prison to continue operating.  "Holding people in what appears to be incommunicado detention runs against the grain of the administration's commitment to greater transparency, accountability, and respect for the dignity of Afghans," Jonathan Horowitz, a human rights researcher at the Open Society Institute, told the Times.

In short, waterboarding and torture is out, sleep deprivation is in, and the Afghan government is now in nominal control of its countries jails, while U.S. guards hover in the background.

How much has really changed is very much up for debate.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

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