In its campaign to portray the Guantánamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects as humane, the Bush administration has made a rare disclosure:
The Pentagon is spending $2.5 million a year to provide proper Muslim meals to prisoners behind the razor wire in isolated Cuba.
That's $12.68 a day in meals for each suspect - or, a Herald survey has found, five times the cost of feeding Florida prisoners.
Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, divulged the cost in television appearances protesting an Amnesty International assessment of Guantánamo as a "gulag, " comparing it to the Soviet-era penal system where prisoners sometimes starved in forced-labor camps.
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Guantánamo "is essentially a model facility, " Myers said on Fox News Sunday. "The contracts for the food, to ensure that our detainees have the proper Muslim- approved food, is $2.5 million annually, just to make sure they're fed right."
Military spokesmen explain the high price is a result of a Muslim population's special needs at a remote site.
Since soon after the prison opened in January 2002, the Pentagon has emphasized that the U.S. military provides prisoners with Korans and Muslim-approved halal meat to portray it as sensitive to Islam. Commanders early on posted markers pointing toward Mecca, for prayer, and airlifted in 125 pounds of halal lamb for a special stew to celebrate the end of the fast month of Ramadan.
By disclosing the $2.5 million sum, Myers offered an increasingly rare glimpse into the cost of running the controversial interrogation center, which has been the focus of federal court battles.
The Herald has had a request for such figures since October with the Southern Command, which oversees the prison. On Wednesday, the Guantánamo prison camp spokesman, Col. Brad Blackner, said the military spends $12.68 to feed each prisoner every day.
In contrast, the Miami-Dade Corrections Department spends $2.19 a day on each prisoner's food - or $3.60, if you calculate salaries and equipment, says Cmdr. Debbie Graham.
If a Miami-Dade prisoner requires a kosher meal, which is similar to Islam's no-pork halal diet, the county spends an additional $3 per prisoner for a prepackaged dinner at night.
What accounts for the gap?
"Maybe they have microphones in the lentils, " deadpanned Winslow T. Wheeler, a Pentagon budget analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, who worked for 20 years on military budget matters at the U.S. Senate and General Accounting Office.
"This is absolutely typical of Department of Defense acquisition and contracting, " he added. "I'm surprised it's not more. DOD doesn't build products, it builds costs."
Still, supplying the Navy base in southeast Cuba is no simple task. Cut off from the island economy by politics and a minefield, the base functions like a ship at sea - importing all goods by cargo plane or a barge from Jacksonville. Every month, each detainee gets nearly 10 pounds of halal-certified meat, Blackner said, one-third of it beef, two thirds of it chicken - brought in frozen on the barge.
"Special care goes into the handling, preparation, delivery and serving of these culturally prepared foods, " said Blackner. "All food given to detainees at Guantánamo Bay is prepared with special consideration for Islamic culture and practices."
Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon said it makes sense to pay more to feed Muslims at the 3-year-old prison camp in Cuba.
"It doesn't surprise me that when you improvise something like this quickly with a diet that's not standard to other prisoners, in a place that's not standard, remote, it would cost that much, " said O'Hanlon, an expert on U.S. defense strategy and budgeting.
He called the $2.5 million "almost a national security expenditure. The alternatives are to feed them badly, to not show proper respect. And anything we do for people that is not appropriate is fodder for radicals that want to stir up trouble for the United States."
Guantánamo is a remote, secretive place, which is why the Bush administration chose the site to interrogate captives. Until a Supreme Court ruling last year, the Pentagon said the base was beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
SAMPLE MENU Blackner provided a sample from Guantánamo's culturally sensitive menu: whole wheat bagels, fresh fruit, rice pilaf, chicken breast in orange sauce, string cheese, vegetable patties, dates, baklava and yams.
In October 2003, the prison commander, Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, boasted that he had a contract to feed prisoners for $3.15 a day, compared with $6 a day for the "troopers" who work at the prison.
Today, Blackner said, it costs $8.25 to feed a trooper - who get variety along a cafeteria line.
Pentad Corp. of Las Vegas has the contract to feed "all military personnel and detainees" at the base, said Navy spokesman Bill Dougherty. The military has so far obligated $8.8 million to the April 2003 contract.
The current contract includes food preparation and delivery, which "is a big deal here, " Blackner said in an e-mail from the Navy base.
Normally prisoners get 2,600 calories a day, he said. At Ramadan, prisoners get nuts, honey and extra rations.
Guards deliver captives' meals in Styrofoam containers - along with a plastic "spork, " a combination fork-spoon, which they must return for fear it will become a weapon.
To put the prisoners' food costs in perspective, the Herald contacted several penal institutions.
* The Florida Department of Corrections pays its contractor, Aramark, $2.51 a day to feed each inmate, whether it is a regular meal, kosher or other special needs, said spokesman Robby Cunningham.
* Broward County spends $2.97 a day, an average of 99 cents a meal, on each prisoner, said Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Hugh Graf.
* The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has 14 facilities around the country, spends $2.78 on each prisoner, special-needs meals included, said spokeswoman Carla Wilson.
But if Guantánamo is a designer prison of sorts, with a special population, The Herald sought similar comparisons.
It costs $7.46 a day to provide halal meals to each of the two "enemy combatants" at the U.S. Navy Brig in Charleston, S.C., said Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman.
Meanwhile, the 450 or so soldiers incarcerated at the military's lockup, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., eat for $6.02 to $8.17 a day, depending on the market price of food, said Fort Leavenworth spokeswoman Janet Wray.
The price covers special meals, too - kosher, Muslim, diabetic. All prisoners at Fort Leavenworth eat cafeteria-style, except those on Death Row.