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The Cost of Running Guantanamo Bay: $13 Million Per Prisoner

The Cost of Running Guantanamo Bay: $13 Million Per Prisoner

Wednesday, 18 September, 2019 - 06:00
A communal cellblock for some of the 40 prisoners who are detained at Guantánamo Bay. Credit Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Holding the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess as the lone prisoner in Germany’s Spandau Prison in 1985 cost an estimated $1.5 million in today’s dollars. The per-prisoner bill in 2012 at the “supermax” facility in Colorado, home to some of the highest-risk prisoners in the United States, was $78,000.

Then there is Guantanamo Bay, where the expense now works out to about $13 million for each of the 40 prisoners being held there.

According to a tally by The New York Times, the total cost last year of holding the prisoners — including the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — paying for the troops who guard them, running the war court and doing related construction, exceeded $540 million.

The $13 million per prisoner cost almost certainly makes Guantanamo the world’s most expensive detention program. And nearly 18 years after the George W. Bush administration took a crude compound called Camp X-Ray and hastily established it as a holding station for enemy fighters picked up in the war on terrorism, it has taken on a sprawling and permanent feel, with the expense most likely to continue far into the future.

Because of the relative isolation of its location on a United States Navy base on Cuba’s southeast coast, the military assigns around 1,800 troops to the detention center, or 45 for each prisoner. The troops work out of three prison buildings, two top-secret headquarters, at least three clinics and two compounds where prisoners consult their lawyers. Some also stand guard across the base at Camp Justice, the site of the war court and parole board hearing room.

The prison’s staff members have their own chapel and cinema, housing, two dining rooms and a team of mental health care workers, who offer comfort dogs.

Judges, lawyers, journalists and support workers are flown in and out on weekly shuttles.

The 40 prisoners, all men, get halal food, access to satellite news and sports channels, workout equipment and PlayStations. Those who behave — and that has been the majority for years — get communal meals and can pray in groups, and some can attend art and horticulture classes.

The estimated annual cost of $540 million covers the 12-month period that ended last Sept. 30 and does not include expenses that have remained classified, presumably including a continued C.I.A. presence. But the figures show that running the range of facilities built up over the years has grown increasingly expensive even as the number of prisoners has declined.

A Defense Department report in 2013 calculated the annual cost of operating Guantanamo Bay’s prison and court system at $454.1 million, or nearly $90 million less than last year. At the time, there were 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, making the per-prisoner cost $2.7 million.

The 2013 report put the total cost of building and operating the prison since 2002 at $5.2 billion through 2014, a figure that now appears to have risen to past $7 billion.

Guantanamo has held a cumulative total of about 770 foreign men and boys as wartime prisoners at different times, with the prison population peaking at 677 in 2003. The last prisoner to arrive came in 2008.

The Bush administration released about 540 of the detainees, mostly by repatriating them to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Then the Obama administration released another 200 through third-country resettlement or repatriation. President Trump ran for office on a promise to keep the prison open and possibly send more “bad dudes” there, though no one new has arrived since he took office.

It has been clear for years that there is no political consensus to end detention operations at Guantanamo Bay and move the remaining prisoners to the United States.

Comparing Guantanamo with more traditional prisons is tricky. Federal prisons employ civilians who pay for their own food and health care, drive their own cars, live in their own homes and amuse themselves on their days off.

The Defense Department provides all of those things for the military personnel at Guantanamo.

The prison’s uniformed staff members also include a Coast Guard unit that patrols the waters below the cliff top prison zone; Navy doctors, nurses, psychological technicians and corpsmen; a unit of Air Force engineers; lawyers, chaplains, librarians, chaperones and military journalists. Each has layers of commanders who oversee their work and manage their lives at Guantanamo.

In addition to the troops, the prison employs Defense Department contract linguists, intelligence analysts, consultants, laborers, information technology professionals and other government workers. In 2014, that civilian work force numbered 300.

The 40 prisoners’ cells are in three different buildings, but during the day, the inmates can be scattered across seven or eight different sites — the war court, a hearing room for parole-like board meetings, the base hospital and two adjacent compounds where the prisoners consult their lawyers.

Consolidation through new construction would allow the prison to reduce its staff at one site by 74 troops, saving $8 million in “manpower costs,” Rear Adm. John Ring, the former prison commander, told reporters in April, suggesting a per-troop cost at the facility of $108,000.

The Defense Department concluded that taxpayers spent $380 million for Guantanamo’s detention, parole board and war court operations, including construction, in the 2018 fiscal year, or more than $9 million per prisoner.

Adding those “manpower costs” of $108,000 a year for each of the 1,800 troops brings the total figure to more than $540 million.

Even in the unlikely event that more prisoners were sent to Guantanamo, the per-prisoner cost would not necessarily decline.

Nearly all of the base supplies arrive twice monthly on a government contract barge from Florida. A refrigerated cargo plane brings fresh fruit and vegetables weekly.

Other costs involve the military commissions, where eight of Guantanamo’s 40 prisoners are charged with terrorism or war crimes, six in death penalty cases that began in 2011 and 2012.

The military commissions costs, based on congressional documents, exceeded $123 million in 2018.

The troops have a multitiered health care system. The trooper clinic cares for the guards’ basic needs. Serious medical matters are handled by the base’s small community hospital. More complicated cases, or soldiers who require specialized tests, are sent to Navy health care facilities in Jacksonville, Fla., or Bethesda, Md.

In 2017, the Navy shipped a portable M.R.I. machine to Guantanamo to scan the brains and bodies of detainees awaiting death penalty trials, by order of a military judge, who granted a request by a defense team to do the tests and hire experts to look for damage done by torture. But because there is no on-site technologist to run it, an off-island contractor has had to shuttle to the base to service it.

Health care for detainees is handled by a group of about 100 Navy doctors, nurses and medics who also staff the trooper clinic. The 100-member medical team had a $4 million budget last year.

The New York Times

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