TV & RadioPodcast review

Serial season four: A stomach-churning account of a brutal, malfunctioning Guantánamo Bay prison camp

Podcast review: The award-winning Serial team have found an astonishing number of sources ready to share their stories of life at the camp

A lot of people know a little about Guantánamo Bay. It was long notorious as a strange American invention of a post-9/11 prison camp, conveniently located in Cuba somehow, because if you housed prisoners on foreign soil you didn’t have to give them access to the US legal system.

In other words, Guantánamo Bay meant leeway for a US government in a panic, desperate to prevent more attacks.

But dig in to that knowledge and very few know very much beyond that: beyond the recurring failures of US president after US president to shut it down, beyond the stories of abuse and torture and hunger strikes and suicide, of prisoners wrongly detained for years and years without legal representation or recourse.

Which is why Serial‘s fourth season, with its focus on Gitmo, as it’s often called, makes for such compelling listening. It is, the familiar, measured voice of Sarah Koenig informs us, “a history of Guantánamo you could only get from the regular people who went through it, the people caught inside a justice system that at its core was made up”.


As we have come to expect from the award-winning team behind Serial – which the New York Times bought in 2020, lending even more wattage to its roving spotlight – this is a heavily sourced, well-produced, deftly scripted podcast asking important questions and finding an astonishing number of sources ready to share their stories of life at the 22-year-old prison camp.

Today, 30 prisoners are still held there at a cost of $13 million a year per prisoner. But over the years it has held hundreds of detainees, with hundreds more there as members of the armed forces, prison guards, interrogators, translators and journalists.

Keonig and her cohost Dana Chivvis get people talking and, through them, illuminate details about the functioning of a prison intent on mining its captives for intelligence in whatever brutal and creative ways those charged with such work could imagine.

We hear of the extraordinary lengths to which one team of captors went to get information from a former detainee named Mohamedou Slahi. We hear directly from Ahmad al-Halabi, an American citizen and member of the US air force who worked at Guantánamo Bay as a translator and interpreter until he was arrested and accused, falsely, of espionage. Col Michael Bumgarner, one-time commander of the Joint Detention Group at Guantánamo, discusses his fraught tenure, during which three prisoners killed themselves. And the last episode to drop before press time spotlights Carol Rosenberg, an American journalist who finds herself a pariah after 20 years of reporting from Guantánamo Bay.

What emerges from each of these personal narratives is a stomach-churning document of a brutal, malfunctioning, secretive sector of the United States at work, funded by taxpayers who are denied a window into what their money has built and sustained over more than 20 years. It is, as Rosenberg calls it, “a forever prison housing a bunch of forever prisoners”, but she also points out that she has been given less and less access and information to what’s really going on there over the years. She calls it “the closing of the aperture”.

Given these circumstances, it’s no wonder we know so little about Guantánamo Bay. Thanks to Serial’s fourth season, however, the aperture has widened again.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast