August 2nd, 2021

7 things for students to know about Guantanamo Bay

Social StudiesU.S.U.S. historyWorld


The Biden administration released its first detainee in mid-July from the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Learn more about the history of Guantanamo Bay by reading the article below, answering the discussion questions and watching the NewsHour segment on Abdul Latif Nasser. Nasser was never charged with a crime, yet remained detained for 19 years. Nearly 800 prisoners have passed through Guantanamo since early 2002. Now, 39 remain. 

Here are seven things for students to know about the U.S. detention center in Cuba:


1) “GITMO” is a U.S. prison located in Cuba — the only U.S. military base in a country with which the U.S. does not have any diplomatic relations

The Guantanamo Bay detention camp, also known as Gitmo, is used to hold suspected terrorists captured by U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guantanamo Bay is located on the southeastern coast of Cuba, where the U.S. leases land for its naval base under a treaty dating back to the 1898 Spanish-American War and in accordance with a 1934 treaty between both countries. Cubans have long protested U.S. presence on the island. 


2) The prison camp was built in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attack

After the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush launched his “war on terror.” Following this terrorist attack, a military prison was established on Guantanamo Bay in Jan. 2002—intentionally outside of U.S. territory. Some 780 detainees have been held at Gitmo since its opening in 2002.

In this photo, reviewed by the U.S. military, and shot through glass, a guard watches over Guantanamo detainees inside the exercise yard at Camp 5 detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, May 31, 2009. The U.S. military is rigging up satellite television service and distributing Sudoku puzzles in Guantanamo prison cells even as the Obama administration works towards a goal of emptying them of detainees. REUTERS/Brennan Linsley/Pool


3) Because GITMO is located in Cuba, and not the United States, prisoners are not granted rights under the U.S. Constitution

Since 2002, hundreds of prisoners have been held at Guantanamo—some without charge, on suspicion of their participation or connection to Islamic terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and the Taliban. According to then-president George W. Bush, the foreign detainees were not entitled to U.S. constitutional rights because they were being held outside of U.S. territory, and therefore had no legal means to petition their holdings.


4) Eleven prisoners dubbed “Forever Prisoners” have been held in Guantanamo for up to 16 years despite never having been charged with a crime

These “Forever Prisoners” have indefinite detention, a practice criticized as a violation of international human rights law and also of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution including right to a trial—because any person deemed suspicious can be locked up for unspecified periods of time without proper due process of law.


5) Even after being cleared for transfer, detainees have been kept for several additional years

In some cases, the U.S. has had trouble finding countries willing to take in the cleared detainees. Although some released detainees may be repatriated to their home countries, in other cases, a third country with reliable security must be found.

U.S. Navy guards walk inside fencing of Camp VI, the maximum security detention facility for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, July 23, 2008. The U.S. military invited news media members to view the facility on Wednesday. Picture taken on July 23, 2008. REUTERS/Randall Mikkelsen


6) Today, it costs around $13 million per prisoner every year to run Guantanamo Bay

Until July 19, 2021, there were 40 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Gitmo is the most expensive detention center in the world. Part of this high cost comes from the number of troops to detainees; there are 1,800 soldiers stationed at Guantanamo to guard 40 prisoners, or 45 soldiers for each prisoner. Additionally, because of the location in Cuba, all goods and services must be imported—meaning everything has a shipping markup.


7) Prisoners have reported mistreatment and poor conditions at Guantanamo, including torture

Gitmo is criticized by international human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as the European Union and the United Nations for “clear breach of international law.”

Mohamedou Slahi, a former detainee, published a firsthand account of the tortures of Guantanamo Bay. Slahi spent 14 years within the walls of Guantanamo since 2002 despite lacking trial and a criminal charge, and was cleared to return home to Mauritania in 2016. His book, Guantanamo Diary was adapted to a major motion picture, “The Mauritanian,” in March 2021. The U.S. government, however, denies the charges of torture at Guantanamo Bay. 


Discussion questions

  1. Although Gitmo is a U.S. prison, it has been argued that U.S. constitutional law does not apply there due to its remote location in Cuba. This legal standard has been criticized by international groups for violating human rights laws. Do you think constitutional protections should extend to everyone in U.S. custody? Why do you think so?
  2. Since its opening in 2002, Guantanamo Bay has cost $6 billion to operate. Today, it costs $380 million per year to run the camp for less than 40 prisoners. Why do you think the U.S. spends this much on so few prisoners? What do you think would be a just solution to help reduce the burden of operating the prison camp?

Check out this Kahoot covering basic facts about Guantanamo Bay.

Additional Resources


This article was written by PBS NewsHour EXTRA’s intern Jacqueline Kim and EXTRA’s Victoria Pasquantonio. Kim is a junior at Amherst College.

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