14 Million Dollars Per Prisoner Per Year: The Absurd Cost of Guantánamo

24.9.19

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Thanks to Carol Rosenberg of the New York Times for exposing what the US no longer wants to remember: that the prison at Guantánamo Bay is, per capita, by far and away the most expensive prison in the world.

According to figures obtained by the Times, “the total cost last year of holding the prisoners,” and of “paying for the troops who guard them, running the [military commissions] war court and doing related construction, exceeded $540 million.”

With 40 men still held (and one released during the year to which the figures refer*), that’s over $13 million per prisoner, but In fact it seems to be even more costly. Rosenberg noted that, for the year to September 2018, the Defense Department stated that it cost $380 million “for Guantánamo’s detention, parole board and war court operations, including construction.”

To that are added the “manpower costs” referred to in April this year by the prison’s former commander, Rear Adm. John Ring, who explained that “[c]onsolidation through new construction would allow the prison to reduce its staff … by 74 troops, saving $8 million,” indicating that the cost per member of the military personnel was $108,000 a year — which, for 1,800 troops, adds another $194.4 million, bringing the total cost to $574.6 million.

That’s over $14 million per prisoner — or to put it another way, 180 times as much per prisoner as it costs to hold someone in the federal “supermax” prison in Colorado, where the cost per prisoner per year in 2012 was $78,000.

As Rosenberg explains, the estimated annual cost — of $574.6 million — “does not include expenses that have remained classified, presumably including a continued C.I.A. presence.” However, “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 that the annual cost of operating Guantánamo’s prison and court system was $454.1 million, around $120 million less than last year. Moreover, at the time, there were 166 prisoners, meaning that the cost per prisoner was $2.7 million, less than a fifth of what it is now.

That report also “put the total cost of building and operating the prison since 2002 at $5.2 billion” to the end of 2014, a figure that, as Rosenberg describes it, “now appears to have risen to past $7 billion.”

Capt. Brian L. Mizer, a Navy lawyer who represented Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, at his military commission trial in 2008, rather appropriately called the prison at Guantánamo “America’s tiniest boutique prison, reserved exclusively for geriatric alleged jihadists.”

The cost of geographical isolation

Part of Guantánamo’s absurd cost relates to its isolation, because, as Rosenberg explains, it is “totally cut off from the Cuban economy,” and everything has to be brought from US. As Rosenberg adds, “It operates in some respects like an aircraft carrier at sea, even desalinating its own water with fuel brought in by tanker.”

As she also explains, “Nearly all of the base supplies — like family household shipments, frozen pizza dough for the bowling alley food court and rental cars for the base commissary — arrive twice monthly on a government contract barge from Florida. A refrigerated cargo plane brings fresh fruit and vegetables weekly.”

The military costs, however, seem very clearly to be excessive. 1,800 troops work at the prison — 45 for each prisoner. As Rosenberg explains, they “work out of three prison buildings, two top-secret headquarters, at least three clinics and two compounds where prisoners consult their lawyers.” Some also work as guards at Camp Justice, the military commissions’ court, and also the location of the hearing room for the Periodic Review Boards, the review process set up in 2013 by President Obama, which led to the release of 36 prisoners in Obama’s last three years in office, although it has become meaningless under Donald Trump, as no prisoner has been approved for release since he took office nearly three years ago.

Rosenberg also explains other costs: “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.”

One critic of this outrageous expense is Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and, as Rosenberg describes it, “a longtime proponent of closing the prison.” In June, Smith said, “I don’t think there’s any need to have an incredibly expensive facility down at Guantánamo housing, you know, 40 people. So ultimately I think they should be transferred here.”

Rosenberg notes that comparing Guantánamo with federal prisons on the US mainland is “tricky,” because workers at the latter are “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,” whereas the military — which employs mostly National Guard forces and reservists on nine-month rotations at Guantánamo — has to pay for everything, but it is, nevertheless, apparent that the initial hysterical over-manning of the prison has never been adequately challenged.

As Rosenberg describes it, Guantánamo’s “uniformed staff members” 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,” and each of these have “layers of commanders who oversee their work and manage their lives at Guantánamo.”

The prison also employs “Defense Department contract linguists, intelligence analysts, consultants, laborers, information technology professionals and other government workers.” In 2014, there were 300 of those civilian workers. (The naval base, meanwhile, has around 4,000 personnel, which also seems excessive, although they have their own budget “separate from the costs of the prison and the court.”)

The area in which the prison is located — within the naval base, but essentially separate from it — also “has its own headquarters, motor pool, mental health services, minimart, and public affairs team, which recently referred to the troops assigned there as ‘warfighters.’” And while an Army security force of fewer than 300 soldiers … live in prefabricated containers within the prison zone, most troops who work in the prison complex live on the naval base” — some in townhouses, while others “live in the kind of trailer park familiar to forces who served in Iraq or Afghanistan” — CHUs, or containerized housing units.

One expense that hasn’t so far been added to the prison’s bill relates to an approval by Congress, in 2018, for $115 million to be spent on “a dormitory-style barracks complex to replace trailer housing for 848 troops.” However, “no contract has been awarded, construction has not yet begun and Navy spokesmen could not provide the target completion date.”

The prison, nevertheless, continues, to swallow money with abandon — with its “watchtowers and Humvees and dirt roads and a series of permanent and semi-permanent prison facilities, all of them built since 2002 and surrounded by razor wire that rusts in the salt air,” the three separate cellblocks for the prisoners, and the “seven or eight different sites” where they can be found on any given day — including the court, the PRB hearing room, the base hospital, and “two adjacent compounds where the prisoners consult their lawyers.”

Other costs involve “wear and tear,” particularly noticeable in south east Cuba, where Guantánamo is located, which is “hot, humid, whipped by tropical storm winds and the occasional hurricane.”

As Rosenberg explains, “In the past two years, the military hired contractors to do $15 million in repairs to the guards’ townhouses, a $14.5 million expansion of the war court compound, $1.5 million in repairs to the trooper clinic, more than $1 million renovating air conditioning and ventilation in the officers’ homes, $648,000 on erosion and climate control around the general population prison complex, $273,110 to replace a latrine near a now defunct kitchen and $47,690 to renovate the prison staff chapel.”

By any measure, I think, paying  $273,110 to replace a latrine is excessive, although, as Rosenberg also explains, “Defense Department contractors who bid for these jobs have to factor in the cost of bringing in their own workers and equipment, including bulldozers and buzz saws. As a measure of how expensive it is to do construction here, the projected cost of a new prison for 15 former CIA captives that was first proposed during the Obama administration has jumped from $49 million to $88.5 million in five years.”

The crippling cost of the military commissions

As Rosenberg explains, a huge part of the cost of running Guantánamo relates to the military commissions, which, based on congressional documents, cost more than $123 million in 2018, even though only eight men are facing charges.

As she describes it, “Each hearing requires a major movement of people and materials from the United States to the base on passenger planes the Pentagon charters for $80,000 one way. There were 52 such commercial flights in 2018 between Joint Base Andrews, outside Washington, and Guantánamo. Until the start of a trial — the trial of the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks is scheduled to begin in early 2021 — the majority of the legal work is carried out in a warren of rental offices near the Pentagon, some of which have sat empty for more than a year as they await security upgrades.”

Just two weeks ago, NPR undertook an investigation into the costs of the court, under the heading, “Whistleblower Cites ‘Waste Of Funds’ At Guantánamo Court And Prison,” noting that “a former top attorney” in the commissions had “filed a federal whistleblower complaint alleging gross waste of funds and gross mismanagement.”  

Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR’s investigations team was told that, “every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars [worth] of government devices — hard drives, cellphones, laptops — are destroyed because of spills of classified information.” She added, “There are a lot of lawyers working down there, hundreds of them. Some of them are death penalty specialists, who are private attorneys, paid by the Pentagon. They cost more than regular government lawyers. Some of them bill about a half a million dollars a year.”

Pfeiffer spoke to Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense counsel for the commissions, who said, bluntly, “Holy crap. People need to know the travesty that is Gitmo. You know, it’s beyond comprehension that it is 2019 and people that were accused of crimes that occurred in 2001, captured in 2003, are nowhere near trial.”

The whistleblower is retired Air Force Col. Gary Brown, who was the legal adviser to the commissions’ convening authority, Harvey Rishikof. However, both men were sacked in February 2018 after pushing for the death penalty to be taken off the table for those accused of the 9/11 attacks. This was because, as Pfeiffer described it, Brown “believes it’s going to be hard to get death penalty convictions because so much evidence is tainted by torture,” and, “[e]ven if there are convictions, there could be 15 years’ worth of appeals, which would take another $1.5 billion.” Instead, Rishikof and Brown proposed to settle the cases via plea deals, whereby the prisoners “would plead guilty and get life in prison. That would speed things up and lower costs.”

So when will this nightmare end? After the Times article was published, Donald Trump, on Air Force One, told reporters, “I think it’s crazy. It costs a fortune to operate it and I think it’s crazy,” and also blamed President Obama for failing to close it. “He was going to have everybody removed and Guantánamo Bay closed up by the time he left office and he didn’t do that,” Trump said, adding, “So we’re stuck with it.”

That sounds positive, but with Trump it would be foolish to expect that anything sensible or decent will happen when it comes to Guantánamo. This, after all, is the man who tweeted, two weeks before taking office in January 2017, “There should be no further releases from Gitmo. These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield.” As the lawyers who submitted a habeas corpus petition on behalf of eleven prisoners last year stated, the ongoing imprisonment of men at Guantánamo “is based only on Trump’s raw antipathy towards Guantánamo prisoners – all foreign-born Muslim men – and Muslims more broadly.”

And, sadly, I don’t see that ending anytime soon.

* Ahmed al-Darbi was released at the start of May 2018, meaning that he was held for seven months of the year for which the figures obtained by the Times apply.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on a report about the outrageous cost of running the prison at Guantanamo Bay by Carol Rosenberg in the New York Times, in which I suggest that her assessment that it costs $13m a year to hold a prisoner at Guantanamo, based on figures for last year, is actually understated, and that the cost is, instead, $14m per prisoner per year.

    This, of course, is a shocking waste of money – 180 times the amount that it costs to keep a convicted prisoner in the US’s “supermax” prison in Colorado – and it ought to provide a compelling reason for the prison to be shut, to add to the fact that it is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, where those still held are, for the most part, held indefinitely without charge or trial, and that every day it remains open ought to be a source of shame to all decent people the world over.

    As ever, though, the route to its closure remains opaque. Asked about the figures, Donald Trump claimed that the cost was “crazy,” and suggested he was looking into it. But this is from the shameful president who has repeatedly demonstrated his enthusiasm for keeping Guantanamo open, and for not releasing any prisoners under any circumstances, making his comments profoundly untrustworthy.

    Will anyone in a position of power and authority ever manage to do the right thing, and close it once and for all, or is it doomed to continue haemorraging money and crushing the spirits of those still held until the end of their lives?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Gauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    The cost of keeping someone in the hell realms!!! Words cannot describe the insanity of it.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, Anna. It’s particularly shameful that when Harvey Rishikof, the commissions’ convening authority, and his legal adviser Gary Brown, came up with a route to the prison’s closure – plea deals for the men charged in the military commissions, with the death penalty taken off the table – they were sacked rather than having their plans supported.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Gauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    Thank goodness there are reasonable people coming up with routes to get this horror show closed down. Praying a change of government sometime soon might bring some light at the end of this very long tunnel.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    We must hope so, Anna.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Roy Randall wrote:

    In the US everything is about capitalizing on whatever endeavor the US takes. If it is war someone capitalizes on it. If it is immigration someone capitalizes on the immigrants suffering. If it is the illegal detaining of humans someone will always capitalize on it. This is the USA.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    aka capitalism, Roy, so thoroughly embraced in tooth and claw by the US.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Roy Randall wrote:

    Thus the futility of your pursuit to close it.

    Thus the futility of my pursuit for peace.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Except that no systems last forever, Roy, and few people, if any, seem to be able to predict tipping points.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Every year the costs rise – both economically and to our souls

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Jan – there is a huge moral cost as well as the economic insanity.

  12. Tom says...

    The US signed a 99 year lease with the Cuban govt. to keep control over this section of the island. What if Cuba finally decided to end this torture of prisoners and kick all of them out? Would they go to the ICJ for redress? No. They think that’s a joke. Go to the UN? Then do what?

    When the US first started torturing at Guantanemo, many Democrats were all for this. Now, how many are still for this (but keep it a secret from the public)?

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I thought it was an open-ended lease, Tom – and it requires both sides to give it up for it to be brought to an end, hence the inability of the Cuban government to do anything about it.
    So it remains a US problem – and one that nobody seems to want to resolve, although I am reassured that some Democrats – on various House committees – have been amenable to discussing it since the Democrats won back the House in the mid-terms last year. That’s been the first glimmer of hope since Trump took office.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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