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Why the cost of holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay keeps rising

The cost of running Guantanamo Bay’s prison and court system climbed by nearly $90 million from 2013 to 2018, even though the number of prisoners housed there has fallen. Amna Nawaz talks to The New York Times' Carol Rosenberg about the factors contributing to the rising costs and whether there's any political appetite to move Guantanamo's so-called "forever prisoners" to another site.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The cost of running Guantanamo Bay's prison and court system jumped by nearly $90 million from 2013 to 2018, even as the number of prisoners there has decreased. That is according to a new analysis from Carol Rosenberg at The New York Times.

    And she joins us on the phone from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

    Carol, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Help us understand that. The number of prisoners have gone down, but somehow the cost has gone up? How is that possible?

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    There's a number of things going on.

    The prison buildings were set up as temporary, expeditionary, war on terror sites, and they opened, as you know, in 2002. And many of the buildings and structures that they have been using are that much older and have needed repairs and replacement and maintenance.

    The price of keeping a soldier, mostly National Guard, in uniform has also gone up across the years. And this detention center of 40 prisoners has 1,800 soldiers. That's 45 troops for every prisoner — 1,800 soldiers, plus a staff of probably around 300 or more civilian contractors.

    In addition, Guantanamo is just plain expensive. It's down here in Cuba. Everything comes in by airplane or barge. Everything has a markup. Construction has a markup. This is an extremely isolated, expensive place to run this kind of operation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Carol, those prisoners that are left there now, I imagine, as they stay there longer — and we don't know exactly what will happen next — you have outlined in your report that it costs more to care for older prisoners.

    Explain that part of the equation to me.

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    We have had a number of instances in recent years of health care conditions that have required the military, the Navy medical unit to call in experts.

    They have been doing them for a while, but, you know, as people age, they get, for example, colonoscopies. They get basic heart condition treatment and care. There's one prisoner here who had a degenerative disc disease that ended up with him being paralyzed in his cell, incontinent.

    And the U.S. military mounted a surgical suite of a neurosurgeon to fix his back, or at least to start working on his spine. And after that one surgery, he needed four more down here across the span of eight or nine months.

    Every complicated medical procedure that takes place down here relies on people coming in to carry it out.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Carol, tell me about those 40 men you mentioned. Why are they still there? How many of them are facing charges? And what about the rest who haven't been charged?

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    So, the first thing to understand is that Guantanamo started off and functions kind of like a POW site, a prisoner of war site.

    There is not a presumption all of them are guilty of war crimes. The U.S. brought them here as POWs of this unusual war, saying they wanted to take them off the battlefield.

    Then, among them, they found a certain number or they brought a certain number that they wanted to charge with war crimes. Best known probably are the five men accused of conspiring in the 9/11 attacks.

    But the majority of them are men who we have come, who I have come to call the forever prisoners. They're indefinite detainees in this war in terror. People have called this the forever war because, in part, there is nobody on the other side to surrender. How do you end this war on terror?

    So, these men, many of them, may be here the rest of their lives. And what's happened under President Trump is that the military recognized that this is no longer expeditionary or temporary detention. They're planning for enduring detention. They're planning for another 20 or so years of holding these men.

    As you probably recall, President Obama said he wanted to close it, he wanted to move some of the men to the United States and hold them in either military or federal detention sites, depending on how they would be charged or held. And Congress blocked it.

    The political will in the United States is to keep them here. So, under the Trump administration, the Pentagon is planning to hold them, if not forever, for the next 20 or so years.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Carol, few reporters have covered Guantanamo Bay as deeply and as extensively as you have.

    Do you see any future in which Guantanamo Bay is actually closed?

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    Well, certainly not, because, first of all, this is a functioning Naval station. It's a Navy base; 6,000 people live here, sailors and their families, contractors.

    Of the 6,000, 2,000 are associated with that prison of 40 prisoners. And there's been no will by any of these administrations to want to get out of the base. It's got an airstrip and a port. And the Pentagon considers it a strategic asset.

    But if you're asking whether or not I foresee them closing the prison and getting rid of the last prisoner, to me, it's unimaginable.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Carol Rosenberg of The New York Times joining us on the phone from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

    Thank you, Carol.

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    My pleasure.

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