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Guantanamo, the Most Expensive Prison on Earth, Hurts Taxpayers and Moral Ground

Spc. Emely Nieves from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard guards her post over the Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facility at sunrise. (Photo: The National Guard / Flickr)

As lawmakers on Congress’ deficit reduction super committee look for places to cut the federal budget ahead of their upcoming deadline, they may want to look at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The facility is “arguably the most expensive prison on earth,” according to a new report from the Miami Herald.

With a budget of $139 million last year to house just 171 detainees, it costs more than $800,000 to keep each prisoner for a year — more than 30 times the average cost of a traditional prison. The report is based on a “secret study” conducted by the camp’s former deputy commander, a money manager by training, who calls the facility “expensive” and “inefficient”:

“It’s a slow-motion Berlin Airlift — that’s been going on for 10 years,” says retired Army Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti, a West Point graduate who in 2008 was deputy commander at the detention center.

Both its location and temporary nature drive up costs, says Zanetti. While there, he wrote a secret study that compared the operation to Alcatraz, noting that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had closed it in 1963 because it was too expensive.

At Guantánamo, everything comes in by barge or aircraft “from paper clips to bulldozers,” Zanetti says, as well as the revolving guard force. Also, more recently, a massage chair for stressed-out prison camp staff.

The camp enjoys fairly lavish facilities and services for both guards and prisoners alike, and employs 1,850 troops, linguists, intelligence analysts, federal agents, and contract laborers, many of whom receive combat pay, as if they were stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unlike troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, however, commanders can also bring their families and kids, at extra expense to taxpayers. The Pentagon notes that extra costs are unavoidable dealing with a remote facility in a foreign country.

Thus, the Obama administration had made attempts to rein in costs of detaining prisoners by urging the closure of the facility. Zanetti’s report said that Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote a letter to GOP congressional leaders noting that while Guantánamo spends “more than $800,000 per detainee,” “our federal prisons spend a little over $25,000 per year, per prisoner, and federal courts and prosecutors routinely handle numerous terrorist case a year well within their operating budgets.” Nonetheless, Republicans — who claim to be concerned about the deficit about all else — have refused to even seriously consider shuttering the camp. A current GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, even once said he wanted to “double Guantanamo.”

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