Prisoner Releases Turn Guantanamo Inmates Into $6 Million Men

  • Per-inmate costs spiraling higher as detainees transferred out
  • Obama, supporters using price in arguing to close prison camp

Activists in orange jump suits participate in a rally in front of the White House in Washington to demand the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on Jan. 11, 2016.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Remember the 1970s TV series "The Six Million Dollar Man?" The U.S. now has 61 of them, all at the Guantanamo Bay military prison that President Barack Obama wants to close.

As the U.S. draws down the prison population by transferring inmates to friendly nations, the cost of housing terrorism suspects at the detention facility in Cuba has climbed to about $6 million per person, according to an analysis of Defense Department figures. That’s produced a politically convenient byproduct for an administration determined to close the site: sticker shock.

The per-inmate cost will only increase as Obama continues to transfer prisoners, as he did last week when 15 detainees were sent to the United Arab Emirates.

"The ballooning waste of taxpayer dollars to imprison people without charge or trial is one of the many good reasons why Guantanamo should be closed," said Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which highlighted the prison’s cost.

Escalating Price

An Obama administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly mused in an e-mail that the escalating price tag helps highlight the "absurdity" of housing suspected terrorists at Guantanamo. A second official, who was also not authorized to speak publicly, agreed, saying in an e-mail that pointing out the prison’s per-inmate cost is one element of the administration’s argument for closing it.

But opponents of closing the facility have so far been unmoved by that or any other argument, and Obama is likely to leave office with his promise to shut it down unfulfilled. Among other hurdles is the nature of the detainees who remain, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as prisoners deemed too dangerous for transfer to other countries or who can never be brought to trial because of the way they were captured and interrogated.

Supermax Comparison

Guantanamo is expensive in comparison to the average cost of incarceration for a maximum-security federal inmate, which was $33,007 in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The annual cost of holding someone in a "Supermax" penitentiary is $86,374, according to a 2015 article by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

The Cuba prison’s cost is a favorite complaint of Obama and other advocates for closing Guantanamo. Obama said in a 2010 press conference that the costs of Guantanamo were "massively higher" than a Supermax facility and in a 2014 interview with CNN that the government was "spending millions for each individual."

Feinstein and Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, have highlighted the cost per detainee in articles advocating Guantanamo’s closure. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has repeatedly cited the prison’s "cost-per-terrorist" as a reason to shutter it.

Republicans who oppose closing the prison or transferring its detainees to the mainland reject the argument.

‘Too Dangerous’

"A large majority of the remaining prisoners have been deemed ‘too dangerous for transfer,’ and the administration has failed to provide a specific plan for safely housing these terrorists anywhere else, not to mention the serious national security risk this transfer would pose," Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas said in an e-mailed statement.

He added that moving Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. would entail costs to construct or modify a prison, such as the Army’s Fort Leavenworth in Roberts’s state, which the Pentagon has examined as an alternative to the prison in Cuba.

Obama has sought to close Guantanamo since he was a senator, arguing that it besmirches the country’s global reputation and undermines national security by serving as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups. The facility is closely associated with the way the war against terrorism was carried out under President George W. Bush, which included harsh interrogation techniques that Obama characterized as torture and banned. Human rights advocates have criticized conditions at the prison and the indefinite nature of the detentions.

Obama tried to shut down Guantanamo and move prisoners to the U.S. early in his first term but was blocked by Congress. Opponents, including some Democrats, raised concerns that detainees might escape into the U.S. or a mainland prison would become a magnet for retaliatory attacks.

Obama has proposed transferring the 61 remaining inmates to a high-security prison or to detention on a military base. "The president is still aiming to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay by the end of his term," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

Expensive Prisoners

As of September 30, 2015, the end of the federal fiscal year, Guantanamo housed 114 inmates at a total cost of $445 million, according to a U.S. Defense Department report, or $3.9 million per detainee.

At a headcount of 61, the annual cost per inmate rises to $5.8 million. That includes savings of about $90 million that the Defense Department estimated in a February 2016 report under a scenario in which the detainee population fell to between 30 and 60.

The cost of Guantanamo is high in part because of the expense of flights back and forth between the United States for attorneys, witnesses, observers and family members for military commissions. It also includes the expense of military troops and contractors that guard and operate the facility, and the logistics of maintaining a detention facility on a remote section of a foreign island.

The Defense Department report said the cost of housing the detainees would remain much higher than most federal prisoners even if they were transferred to a U.S. facility. They would require greater security and surveillance and facilities for handling classified information, as well as the expense of conducting military commissions.

The report estimated the government would save only $65 million to $85 million per year with a domestic prison -- about $1.1 million to $1.4 million per prisoner. After deducting the costs of modifying a U.S. facility and other one-time expenses, that would amount to $335 million in total savings over 10 years.

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