The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. could save millions by paying each Gitmo prisoner $2 million annual salary to do nothing

A 2010 photo shows U.S. military guards watching detainees in a cell block at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center. (John Moore/Getty Images)

A new report by the Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg, the dean of the Guantanamo Bay media corps, estimates that the United States spends a little under half a billion dollars per year to maintain the prison facility there. That number, including troop salaries, war court costs and other fees, amounts to $454 million this year and is estimated to be slightly less next year. The data is based on Pentagon numbers that were sent to Congress and just made public.

The cost is especially striking considering that there are only 166 detainees at the facility. That comes to about $2.7 million per prisoner per year. And that estimate, Rosenberg notes, doesn't even include one-time costs to build a $13.5 million headquarters office or ongoing costs, the details of which are classified, to maintain the "Camp 7" lockup for some prisoners once held by the CIA. By comparison, a 2010 California government study determined that it cost the state about $47,000 to incarcerate one person for one year.

Hypothetically, the United States could simply pay each detainee a $2 million annual salary to do nothing, thus allowing it both to shutter the controversial prison and saving about $110 million every year. Everybody wins.

That would be impossible, of course, for any number of reasons. But it's a reminder of not just Gitmo's cost in dollars and its inefficiency, but yet another reason why the Obama administration has hoped to close it. The degree to which the administration has failed because of its own political will vs. political opposition is the subject of some debate, though Obama himself has signaled a strong personal desire to do it.

You can start to see why the United States might be tempted by Yemen's offer to build its own high-tech prison facility that could take some Gitmo prisoners for about $20 million in aid, mostly from the United States. That would certainly be more cost-effective for the United States, although some officials have expressed concerns about the facility's security – concerns likely to be exacerbated by this week's mass prison breaks in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya.

You can also see why the Obama administration briefly considered a plan to move the prisoners into a U.S. prison, a plan later abandoned under political opposition.

So why are these 166 prisoners still there, when seemingly any other option would be at least more cost-effective? The question gets stranger but actually somewhat easier to answer when you consider that 86 of those prisoners have been cleared for release because the United States does not believe they pose a threat. In some cases, the United States wants to keep them locked up but can't try them in a civilian or military court, sometimes because their testimony was tainted by Bush-era abuses that many observers consider to have met the definition of torture. More often, though, the United States can't find a country that will accept the detainees or doesn't feel comfortable fulfilling Congress's demand that they make the (functionally impossible) guarantee that the detainee will never turn to terrorism.

In other words, the White House has been pretty clear that it does not like the idea of spending $2.7 million per year per detainee to keep them locked up in Guantanamo. But, for reasons having to do with everything from international diplomacy to domestic politics, they're stuck in a legal limbo. Ironically, for all the money being spent on the detainees, they are furiously unhappy with their situation. Many, protesting that they are still locked up despite being cleared for release, have been alternating in and out of hunger strikes since this spring.