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  • David Williams

The Moral and Economic Costs of Guantanamo Bay

Credit: U.S. Navy

Guantanamo Bay is the highest security prison in the world and also the most infamous. It’s a name synonymous with torture, the war on terror, and the political climate of the 2000s and early 2010s. While the prison has largely faded from public discourse, now little more than a remnant of the Obama administration for most, it remains operational and continues to cost American taxpayers millions per year.

Yet signs indicate President Joe Biden has not fully forgotten his promise to close the facility. On September 17, he quietly appointed a senior diplomat to oversee the process of transferring the remaining prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay. Biden’s efforts to close the prison have been somewhat minimal so far, as most of his administration’s attention has turned to ongoing and emergent crises like Covid-19 or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, detractors highlight that the Pentagon is currently planning a $4 million dollar expansion of Guantanamo Bay trial facilities, so doubts remain as to what the impact of Biden’s new actions will be. Given Guantanamo Bay seems poised to stay around for the time being, it's worth taking a look back at the prison's history and what exactly taxpayers continue to fund year by year.

The US constructed the detention camp in 2002 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold suspected and convicted Islamic extremists. This was largely tied to the fallout from the 9/11 attacks, as most of the prison’s initial detainees were members of Al Qaeda, the group behind the attacks, or the Taliban, which had harbored Osama Bin Laden.

The prison has gone on to hold 779 Muslim men and boys as of January 2022. Crucially, nearly all of these prisoners were held without charge or any means to legally defend themselves. This blatantly flies in the face of US law, which guarantees both the right to legal representation via the sixth amendment and protects against arbitrary detention. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who chairs the senate judiciary committee, summed up these criticisms in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: "Holding people without charge or trial for years on end cannot be reconciled with the values we espouse as a nation, and has deprived the victims of 9/11 and their families of any semblance of justice or closure”.

The Bush administration maintained that the prison’s location outside of US borders meant no such protections applied to detainees, and while this was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2008, many prisoners slated for transfer continued to be held for years on end, with some remaining in captivity to this day. This is only the tip of the iceberg that is Guantanamo Bay’s ethical failures, but there is one word that defines the prison more than any other: torture.

In 2003, the CIA developed “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EITs) to be used on high value prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and similar facilities. These included physically slapping or grabbing prisoners, extended sleep deprivation, placing prisoners in “stress positions” in which a large amount of weight is placed on one or two muscles for a long period of time, and waterboarding, a technique designed to simulate drowning by placing prisoners upside down and pouring water over their mouth and nose. These techniques were created in consultation with psychologists who worked at US military schools that teach soldiers how to survive enemy torture techniques.

At Guantanamo Bay, prisoners were also subject to inhumane treatment outside of interrogations. Prisoners have reported enduring beatings, extended periods in solitary confinement, forced shavings and feeding, sexual abuse, and a slew of other injustices. A 2008 senate report found “the abuse of detainees…damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.” So not only was Guantanamo a failure to uphold our moral principles, it actively worsened terror abroad and kneecapped America’s intelligence collecting systems by providing faulty information.

These acts were broadly condemned by the international community for violating the Geneva convention, which lays out international rules surrounding the treatment of prisoners of war. Yet the Bush administration maintained that its actions were justified, arguing terrorists were not legitimate combatants and therefore not subject to the conventions guidelines. This has left an indelible mark on Guantanamo Bay’s legacy, making it a beacon for violations of both US and international law.

President Obama banned the use of EITs upon assuming office in 2009, but he was never able to close Guantanamo Bay, and his successor made no efforts to shut down the site. While the modern conditions of Guantanamo are certainly an improvement over its mid 2000s state, many of the same issues still persist.

The facility’s population has dwindled to just 36 prisoners as of October, over half of whom have not been charged with or convicted of any crime. Some of these men have been captured since Guantanamo’s creation in 2002, and while many are slated for transfer little progress has been made in finding places to send them.

And holding these men is not cheap, as the US spends around $540 million a year to keep the prison operational, equivalent to about $13 million per prisoner, making Guantanamo the world's most expensive detention program. For reference, the average amount spent on individual prisoners per year in the US is between $25,000 to $30,000, making Guantanamo Bay prisoners roughly 500 times more expensive to hold. Even at America’s “supermax” facility in Colorado, which holds some of the most dangerous convicted criminals, the annual cost per prisoner was just $78,000.

Guantanamo Bay is little more than a memory for most Americans, yet taxpayers continue to pay the price for its continued operation. The prison has severely damaged the American reputation overseas, bolstering the very terrorist groups it was created to fight. The prison has violated international law, and to this day continues to fly in the face of rights held sacred by American democracy. Furthermore, the program is far more expensive than any other comparable program worldwide, despite providing no discernable gains. It remains imperative for President Biden to continue taking the steps to close down the prison for good, because while most of America may have forgotten about Guantanamo Bay, the world remembers.


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