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Guantánamo Bay Is Crumbling Into Ruins

But guards and prisoners aren't leaving any time soon

ADALBERTO ROQUE / Staff / Getty Images

In 1995, the U.S. military built a small temporary food preparation station on the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base to feed an influx of Haitian and Cuban refugees. Within a year, the migrants had either repatriated to their home countries or received asylum in the U.S., and the food preparation station was used minimally, preparing about 300 meals a day. After September 11, however, the Bush administration detained hundreds of men from vaguely defined battlefields on the other side of the world and sent them to Guantánamo Bay for temporary imprisonment. These men, and the military personnel that oversaw them, needed to be fed. 

The food preparation station was soon serving 3,800 meals each day. Next to the food prep station, the military hastily constructed a tent-like dining area for soldiers. The Bush administration had no long-term plans for the detention program, and the military was told to prioritize quick and inexpensive construction.They used white vinyl tension fabric for the ceilings and adorned the place with faux sea creatures, framed photographs of Guantánamo’s beaches, and wall-mounted kayaks. They called it the Seaside Galley, implemented a ban on tank tops, and declared Wednesdays “taco night.” The military built the facility to last five to ten years.

Eleven years later, the Seaside Galley is still in use. The structure, which was renamed the Camp America Dining Facility in late 2013, is now corroding. There are holes in the roof and structural support beams, and a 2011 inspection found it posed an above-average risk for food-borne illness. According to the Defense Department, “the facility has degraded to the point of unsanitary conditions for food preparation and comfortable working conditions,” and is “in jeopardy of imminent failure.” 2015 defense budget reports peg the cost of repairs at $12 million. 

That hefty sum is still just a drop in the bucket of the $5 billion the U.S. government has spent operating the Guantánamo Bay detention program since it began in 2002.

Defense Department

At a cost of $2.8 million per prisoner per year, Guantánamo is the most expensive prison in the world. (The costliest prison in the U.S., the Colorado Supermax, at $78,000 per prisoner per year.) And the costs will continue to rise as facilities that were built to be temporary, like the Camp America Dining Facility, deteriorate. In addition to the dining facility repairs, the 2015 defense budget also calls for $11.8 million to upgrade a medical clinic that was never built to serve an aging population of prisoners. Congress earmarked another $69 million to renovate Camp 7, the top-secret facility that holds the 15-high value detainees who were tortured in CIA black sites prior to their transfer to Guantánamo. In March, The Miami Herald reported that the ground below the facility had shifted, causing the floors and walls of the building to crack.

Many Americans believe that the Guantánamo Bay prison has been a moral disaster for their country. It’s becoming increasingly evident that the prison has been a financial catastrophe, as well. And in a political culture where fiscal arguments seem to carry more weight than appeals to morality, the unnecessary cost of Guantánamo may raise more alarm than instances of prisoner abuse and violations of international law.

 “I think the only way to get past the opposition to closing Guantánamo is by continuing to make the argument about the sheer cost,” says Representative Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “It keeps hitting us year in and year out, and eventually, people might decide we can’t afford it.”

When the U.S. assumed control over Guantánamo Bay in 1903, it seemed like a good deal. The 45-square-mile base expanded U.S. military reach into the Caribbean, and at a yearly cost of only 2,000 gold coins. In 1934, the lease was converted to dollars (the equivalent of $4,085 today) and a reaffirmed treaty stated that the lease could only be terminated with the consent of both the U.S. and Cuba.

The U.S. cut diplomatic relations and embargoed Cuba in 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro rose to power. But it opted to keep the naval base, a potentially valuable foothold for its strategic objective of Communist containment. Cuban leadership views the base as an illegal occupation, but under the 1934 terms, cannot unilaterally break the lease. As a sign of protest, Cuba refuses to cash U.S. checks—but even with the free rent, it turns out that operating a military base in enemy territory is expensive.   

In 1964, Castro cut off the water supply to Guantánamo Bay, forcing the Americans to rapidly construct a desalination plant. Powered by wind turbines and diesel generators, it pumps 1.2 million gallons of water a day for the 6,000 residents on base—60 percent of whom are attached to the detention center operations. According to 2011 figures from the American Waterworks Association, the cost per gallon of water from Guantánamo’s desalination plant is eight times the average cost of water in the continental U.S. 

Since the U.S. can’t purchase goods from Cuba, food and supplies are shipped in on a biweekly barge from Jacksonville, Florida. In a testimony before Congress last year, Commander of U.S. Southern Command John F. Kelly explained that shipping materials across 800 miles of ocean nearly doubles the cost of every item. “A 10-penny nail costs 20 cents,Kelly said. “Everything is more expensive.”

Even the most fervent neoconservatives of the Bush administration envisioned the detention program at Guantánamo as a temporary way to evade the restrictions of domestic law while the U.S. fought its shadowy war against terror. During the first year of the detention program, the U.S. spent less than $10 million on personnel to oversee the 742 detainees.

Last year, the cost of personnel was $146 million, despite the camp having 80 percent fewer prisoners. President Obama has called for Guantánamo to be shut down since he came into office in 2009, but Congress has made this nearly impossible since 2011, when it banned the Pentagon from using any money to transfer Guantánamo to the U.S. or to build facilities to house detainees in the U.S. As a result, the base exists in a strange limbo, where the military runs it as though it is a temporary operation even though there are no plans to close it anytime soon.

“I am assuming Guantánamo will be closed someday,” Kelly said last year. “It was supposed to be temporary. Who knows where it is going? We have got to take care of our troops.”

As for planning for a wind down, “We don’t know when that will be, if that will be,” said Guantánamo spokesman Captain Tom Gresback last month. “In the military, we’re great planners, so we need to plan as if we’ll be here.”

They could be there for a long time, given how ineffective the military has been at prosecuting Guantánamo’s inmates. Of the 779 prisoners who have been held at Guantánamo since 2002, only eight have been convicted through the war court, and seven are currently facing charges. Five of these men were accused of planning the September 11 attacks. It has been more than two years since their 13-hour arraignment, and the case is still in the pre-trial phase.

Last month, James Connell, one of the defense lawyers on the case, said, “Some people ask me, do I see an end in sight in this case. I don’t even see a middle in sight in this case—we’re still in the beginning of this case! We’re still trying to figure out what the rules are, does the Constitution apply.”

As the process drags out, Guantánamo’s prisoners are aging and developing chronic health conditions. The medical clinic on the prison side of the base was built to treat day-to-day health ailments for a relatively young group of men. But in 2007, an Afghan prisoner named Abdul Razzak died of colon cancer just before his 69th birthday. In 2011, 43-year-old Awal Gul collapsed; the military said his cause of death was a heart attack. Tariq Al Sawah, a 56-year-old Egyptian, has diabetes and hypertension, and is also high-risk for heart failure. A senior medical officer at Guantánamo told The New York Times that he is monitoring about 20 to 25 prisoners with similar ongoing health problems.  

Because of the Congressional ban on using money to transfer detainees to the U.S., all medical treatment has to occur at Guantánamo. The U.S. Naval Hospital (for soldiers and their families) is the only facility on the base that is set up to provide chronic care or emergency treatment. Detainees are either treated there after hours, or, in emergency situations, the hospital is shut down to treat a detainee during the day. Faced with the fact that an increasing number of detainees will need the type of medical care that is currently only available at the main hospital, Congress has approved $11 million to build a new, better-equipped medical facility near the prisons.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course. In 2009, before the current Congressional restrictions, a Guantánamo detainee named Ahmed Ghailani was transferred to the U.S. to stand trial before a federal court in lower Manhattan. His trial lasted just over one year and he was found guilty of planning the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings. He is now serving a life sentence without parole in the Colorado Supermax, where Ramzi Yousef, one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, and Umar Abdulmutallab, the unsuccessful Al Qaeda-trained “underwear bomber,” are also held.   

“We have hundreds of terrorists, mass murderers, and truly violent, dangerous people locked up in the U.S.,” said Representative Smith. “The idea that we are incapable of safely holding people here is patently ridiculous.” 

As it currently stands, there is no legal way to transfer detainees to the U.S. to stand trial. The military commissions in Guantánamo are riddled with dysfunction, and even detainees who have been cleared for release can’t be safely sent back to their home countries—in some cases because of the fact that they were held in Guantánamo. The small handful of detainees that can be charged with a crime will face the judge in a makeshift courtroom called the “Expeditionary Legal Complex.” The U.S. government built it in 2007, at a cost of $12 million dollars.