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Guantanamo Detainees Cost $800,000 Annually

The U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has become the world’s most expensive prison, at around 30 times the average cost to house prisoners in detention facilities in the United States.

Each year the Department of Defense “spends approximately ... $800,000 per detainee,” Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other Cabinet members wrote in a letter to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “Meanwhile, our federal prisons spend a little over $25,000 per year, per prisoner, and federal courts and prosecutors routinely handle numerous terrorist cases a year well within their operating budgets.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2012, p.26].

The prison at Guantanamo opened in January 2002 and as of September 10, 2012 held 167 “enemy combatants” or detainees suspected of terrorist acts, at a cost of about $139 million annually. More than 600 detainees have been re-leased since the prison opened; of those currently held at Guantanamo, 87 have been approved for release but remain incarcerated.

“We are running a five-star resort and not a detention facility for terrorists,” said Florida Republican Representative Allen West, a former Army lieutenant colonel. “For example, why do they need 24 cable-TV channels?”

Cooperative detainees do get in-cell satellite television, which allows them to watch sports, news, religious programs and Arabic soap operas. They also have access to a 24,000-title library that contains videos, magazines and books – including popular selections like Harry Potter. Detainees who are taking a life skills class can use laptop computers to practice writing résumés, in case they are released.

Daily meal costs per detainee at Guantanamo are $38.45, compared to under $2.30 for Florida state prisoners.

Of course the guards at the military prison have cable television, too. And their own gym, housing quarters, newsletter, dining room, chapel, mental health services, massage chairs, mini-mart and movie theater. Plus the base has a school system for the children of Guantanamo staffers.

A guard holding the rank of petty officer 3rd class with four years of Navy experience earns $2,985.84 per month and hazardous duty pay equal to combat pay in Kabul, Afghanistan. A commander at Guantanamo with fifteen years’ experience and no children earns $7,840 a month, inclusive of hazardous duty pay. The base has a revolving staff of 1,850 employees, including guards, laborers and intelligence analysts.

And the costs don’t stop there. The military is spending $750,000 to replace the camp hospital with a new “infirmary hub” and “expeditionary medical shelters.” No one knows what it will cost to equip the new hospital; the Navy Logistics Command has put out bids for supplies ranging from microscopes to resuscitators.

Guantanamo officials are also contracting for capital improvements, such as $2 million worth of new computers. “Everything from paper clips to bulldozers,” as well as personnel, must be brought in on ships or aircraft, driving up costs, noted retired Army Brigadier General Greg Zanetti, who served as Guantanamo’s deputy commander in 2008.

“What complicates the overall command further is the lawyers, interrogators and guards all operating under separate budgets and command structures,” Zanetti said. “It’s like combining the corporate cultures and budgets of Goldman, Apple and Coke. Business schools would have a field day dissecting the structure at Guantanamo.”

Which is an indication that the cost of housing detainees at Guantanamo has less to do with expensive amenities for prisoners, and more with staffing expenses and the inherently high overhead of maintaining an island military base on foreign soil.

Sources: Miami Herald,,

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