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Guantanamo captives vastly outnumbered by 2,000 guards, staff

A guard at Joint Task Force Guantanamo walks a tier at Camp 5 making routing cell checks of detainees.

KILHO PARK/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

By CAROL ROSENBERG | Miami Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 22, 2016

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Tribune News Service) — With the Obama administration scheduled to present its prison-closing plan to Congress this week, one question it may answer is how many guards it takes to secure the declining number of detainees at Guantanamo.

Today, 2,000 troops and civilians are stationed here to staff the prison and court alone, by one measure working out to $4.4 million a year for each the last 91 detainees.

That’s not because the huge staff is on standby for the possibility that the prison population might grow. Obama administration policy prohibits bringing new captives here.

Rather, the warden said in a recent interview that he staffs for the worst-case scenario at this remote outpost on Cuba’s southeastern tip — that each and every captive suddenly needs to be confined alone inside a cell rather than the current climate of most captives cooperating with their guards and allowed to live communally.

Of the 2,000 prison staff, 1,700 are U.S. military and 1,300 make up the guard force.

“I don’t have the state police. I don’t have the county sheriff,” Army Col. David Heath said. “I don’t have anybody else to call to help me keep things under control here. And it would be several weeks before we could get a unit mobilized and in here.”

In its 2016 policy bill, Congress set Tuesday as the deadline for the White House to present a “comprehensive detention strategy” for how to handle current and future alleged terrorists. Obama administration officials have said their plan involves sending some cleared detainees to other countries and the rest to military detention somewhere in the United States — something that Congress now forbids.

In the meantime, during a recent visit, the last 91 prisoners were scattered across at least six different lockups at the Detention Center Zone that has been built in fits and starts since Camp X-Ray opened four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

All but at most three captives that day were deemed compliant, cooperating with camp guards, mostly living in groups that signaled little strife.

But the far-flung nature of today’s prison, different sites built to solve different problems across a decade of construction, some discarded, some repurposed, also accounts for the need for 1,700 troops — about 18 soldiers for every captive.

Some stand guard on cellblocks where it takes the same number of guards to stand watch whether there is one detainee or 10 inside, said Heath, who commands 1,300 of the security forces. Others do escort duty, moving captives between prison buildings to legal meetings, Red Cross visits, calls from home, the hospital and parole board sessions, each with a different location, each requiring its own security.

Add to that the war court, about a 15-minute drive from the prison, requiring more security as alleged terrorists are transported to hearings. The prison also has a temporary maritime unit, borrowed from the Coast Guard to protect the prison’s shoreline and bay, and Air Force engineers who maintain temporary tent cities and trailer parks.

Administration officials say the U.S. government spent $399 million in 2015 on the various missions required to maintain the prisoners, not just the care and feeding of the captives but also the troops here on mostly 6- to 9- to 12-month rotations. That means feeding, housing, training and entertaining the 1,700 troops, whose supplies arrive by sea or air, accounting for some of high costs.

The widespread 2013 hunger strike was labor intensive for the guard force.

Life under lockdown is labor intensive. Guards delivered individual meals in plastic foam containers to each captive, logging what went in and recording how much each man ate. Hunger strikers requiring up to twice-daily tube feedings had to be taken from their cells and shackled to restraint chairs. Five-troop forced-cell-extraction teams were used on those who didn’t go willingly. A military photographer took part as a sixth member to document every move. More troops were needed to scrutinize monitors that peer into each cell, on guard for suicide attempts and other feared misbehavior.

By April 15, 2014, the military reported that total Detention Center staff, troops and civilians, had swollen to 2,268. The prison held 155 captives.

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©2016 Miami Herald

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