Senators Advocate Costly, Unnecessary Guantanamo Prison

Today, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is holding a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on “Guantanamo Detention Facility and Future of U.S. Detention Policy.” A large issue expected to arise at the hearing is where the United States should hold and try terrorism suspects: in U.S. prisons and federal court or at the prison and military commission at Guantanamo Bay. The answer is clear. Federal courts and prisons can handle terrorism suspects, and have been doing so (at much lower cost) for decades.

In our new issue brief “The Cost of the Guantanamo Bay Prison,” Human Rights First shows that even under the most expensive possible circumstances, trial and imprisonment in U.S. federal courts and prisons would still be far less expensive than holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In 2014, the cost per detainee per year at Guantanamo ranged between $2.9 million and $3.5 million (because of transfers throughout the year). At the same time, keeping a prisoner at a maximum security federal prison costs just over $34,000 per year, and at a federal Supermax prison—the highest-security and most expensive federal prison—the cost is $78,000 per year.

The higher cost of detaining prisoners at Guantanamo is unacceptable, especially in a time of fiscal crisis and cuts to military functions and programs for troops and veterans. Because of the location of the Guantanamo prison, everything is more costly, and these costs will continue to grow. Flights for the problematic military commission trials cost $90,000 each way, and there are inadequate courtroom facilities to handle the trials planned. And since the prison was built as a temporary facility, infrastructure repairs are needed and will be needed more in the future. If the prison is not closed, medical care costs will grow for the aging prisoner population, requiring specialists and medical equipment to be brought to the island.

Meanwhile, federal courts continue to handle terrorism cases just fine and U.S. prisons continue to hold those convicted without incident. And all without excessive obligation to the American tax-payer. While Senator Ayotte’s hearing is taking place, the trial of alleged al Qaeda member Khalid al-Fawwaz is happening quietly in New York federal court. While lawmakers struggle to make the case that costly and indefinite military detention and trial is necessary to get intelligence and try terrorists, the United States is using intelligence and witnesses obtained through the traditional law enforcement system (yes, even with Miranda) to safely try terrorism suspects all the time. All of this at a fraction of the price of doing the same things at the remote island prison at Guantanamo.

Lawmakers need to be realistic about what they’re really saying when they support keeping Guantanamo open and sending alleged terrorists there instead of federal court and prison. They’re advocating higher costs for the American taxpayer and denigrating a federal court and prison system that is doing its job.


Published on February 5, 2015


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