The U.S.’s toughest federal penitentiary – the “Super Max” prison in Florence, Colorado – houses the most hardened criminals at an annual operating cost of $34 million.
With a current population of 435 prisoners, that works out to roughly $75,000 a year per inmate, according to GAO figures.
By contrast, the Pentagon says the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, established by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks, will cost the U.S. government $443 million to operate this year alone – or an average of $2.99 million for each of the 148 detainees.
The military prison, located within Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, began holding and interrogating extraordinarily dangerous people captured as part of the “War on Terror” in January 2002. Some of those interrogations led to prosecutions of those deemed to have committed war crimes.
More than a dozen years after the Bush administration sent the first prisoners to Guantanamo – from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and South Asia – there are mounting questions about whether President Obama will be able to make good on his promise to close the facility before he leaves office.
The prison has become a costly albatross with numerous legal and political roadblocks to reassigning the detainees. Could they be sent to a U.S. prison? Returned to their homeland? Hardly.
Current and former detainees have charged that they were abused or tortured, allegations that Bush administration officials repeatedly denied. In a 2005 Amnesty International report, the facility was called the “Gulag of our time.”
Although President Obama vowed last year to step up efforts to close Guantanamo, his administration has succeeded in releasing only one low-level prisoner this year. That means there are 79 approved for transfer who are still waiting. Moreover, the administration has repeatedly struck out in trying to convince Congress to remove its ban on transferring the remaining 70 higher-level detainees to a prison in the U.S.
Gen. John F. Kelly, leader of the United States Southern Command, which oversees the prison facility, told The New York Times the Gitmo prison complex is still a long way from being closed without a dramatic turnabout in the thinking of lawmakers.
Obama has argued that GITMO should be closed because it endangers national security and because it has become an anti-American symbol of past torture and other abuses of detainees. Jihadist members of ISIS who beheaded two American journalists earlier this year mocked the U.S. by forcing the Americans to dress in orange clothing similar to the clothes worn by some Guantanamo detainees.
As Congress turns to writing new spending bills for the rest of the fiscal year, the administration has begun stressing another argument: that the prison is becoming preposterously expensive to operate in perpetuity.
Cliff Sloan, the State Department’s special envoy on detainee transfers, said the mounting per capita cost is likely to get the attention of budget-conscious lawmakers.
“In addition to the other powerful and compelling reasons for closure, one very important point is the wildly exorbitant drain on federal resources,” Sloan said. “That argument should unite everybody. Guantanamo just doesn’t make sense as a fiscal matter.”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and an advocate of closing the facility, has echoed that concern. He has said that, per capita, GITMO may be the most expensive detention facility in the world.
“As the number of detainees at GITMO shrinks, the price per detainee is only going to go up because when you remove an individual, it doesn’t significantly change your operating costs,” explained Michael Amato, a Smith spokesperson. “You still have to maintain essentially the same level of security and space.”
The huge disparity in the costs of operating GITMO and most other prisons largely has to do with its isolated location adjoining Cuba. The U.S. and Cuba are longstanding adversaries with no formal diplomatic relations. The U.S. has also long imposed economic and trade sanctions on the Castro government.
As a result, the U.S. military cannot use domestic labor, cannot purchase domestic materials and supplies, must generate its own electricity, and must operate two hospitals – one for detainees and one for U.S. military and staff. Supplies, material and personnel must be flown in, adding substantially to the overall cost.
The facility that holds the most notorious detainees – including Khalid Shaik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks – was built on unstable terrain and must be replaced for any long-term use, The New York Times has reported. Last year, the Southern Command requested about $200 million to rebuild that structure and upgrade housing for the 2,000 troops who are members of the prison taskforce, but the Pentagon rejected it.
“As that prison population ages, you only have to do more,” said Amato.
The main obstacle to closing the facility is a 2010 congressional ban on transferring detainees to U.S. soil. Congress passed that legislation in response to reports that the administration was considering relocating detainees to a maximum-security prison in Thomson, Ill. The previous year, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pushed through a measure denying the administration $80 million to close the center, according to The Almanac of American Politics.
If all else fails, Obama may try again to circumvent Congress with an executive order to shutter the facility. The White House was drafting options to allow the president to override the ban, The Wall Street Journal reported last month.
Congressional Republicans already are furious about the president’s use of executive orders to impose his will and are bracing for one that would overhaul the immigration system and lift the threat of deportation for millions of illegal immigrants. The House voted last summer to take the president to court for executive overreach in unilaterally altering a provision of the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans said Obama’s threat of moving suspected terrorists to the U.S. could endanger Americans.
“Even as Islamic jihadists are beheading Americans, the White House is so eager to bring these terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. that it is examining ways to thwart Congress,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said in a statement. “Not only is this scheme dangerous, it is yet another example of what will be this administration’s legacy of lawlessness.”
Why It Matters
The feud between President Obama and Congress over closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center for suspected terrorists may be coming to a head. Obama could consider using another executive order to override a legislative ban on moving prisoners to the U.S., thus infuriating the GOP even more. One unanswered question: With America at war against ISIS, which has consolidated its power with other jihadists, the likelihood of more prisoners entering the facility is more than likely.
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