91 Guantánamo captives vastly outnumbered by 2,000 guards, staff

Video: How many troops are needed at Guantánamo?

Southcom commander Adm. Kurt Tidd and Army Col. David Heath, who commands the JTF guard force, said in recent interviews that the number of troops needed to operate the detention center at Guantánamo is determined more by the size of the facility
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Southcom commander Adm. Kurt Tidd and Army Col. David Heath, who commands the JTF guard force, said in recent interviews that the number of troops needed to operate the detention center at Guantánamo is determined more by the size of the facility

With the Obama administration poised to present its prison closure plan to Congress this week, one question it may answer is how many guards it really takes to secure the declining number of war-on-terror detainees.

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 of 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 war-on-terror 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.

“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.”

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

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 war-on-terror captives. Obama administration officials have said they’re designing an endgame for Guantánamo that involves sending some cleared detainees to other countries and the rest to military detention somewhere in the United States — something that Congress currently forbids.

Meantime, on a recent media visit the last 91 war-on-terror prisoners were scattered across at least six different lockups at the sprawling Detention Center Zone that has been built in fits and starts since Camp X-Ray opened four months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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

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, says 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.

This is not spring break down here. They are not sitting on the beach.

Army Col. David Heath on his 1,300-strong detention center force

Add to that the war court, perhaps a 15-minute drive from the prison, requiring more security as alleged terrorists are shuttled for 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 taxpayers spent $399 million in 2015 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. In 2011, a former general who helped run the prison called the system “inefficient,” like a “slow-motion Berlin Airlift,” in a Miami Herald study that dubbed Guantánamo “The Most Expensive Prison on Earth.”

At that time, the detention center had 171 captives and a leaner staff of 1,850 troops and civilians. But in early 2013 more than 100 captives waged a hunger strike to protest their detention. The Pentagon scrambled Navy medics and other troops to the base in Cuba to cope with it.

By summer, troops raided the communal blocks and locked each and every one of the then-166 captives into single-cell detention, a vivid illustration of Heath’s worst-case scenario.

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

Life under lockdown is labor intensive. Guards suddenly found themselves delivering individual meals in styrofoam 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.

Heath has said consolidation of some prison functions in fewer buildings could cut some troop needs, suggesting cost savings could be realized.

“I’m not saying that it’s going to stay at the number it is forever,” Heath said of the current 2,000 staff level. “As a responsible commander, we are looking at the future and trying to think up what could happen, what will happen and how are we going to best deal with that.

“I consider myself a steward of the taxpayer,” he added. “And I’m not spending any dollar that I don’t think needs to be spent down here.”

Southcom commander Adm Kurt Tidd said in a recent interview that the detention center at Guantánamo had fulfilled its mission and the Obama administration's policy now was to work toward closing it.

Fewer prisoners suggest fewer chores for the U.S. forces. But Heath says the troops are kept busy, with training and other mandated programs.

“My battalion commanders have different training activities planned to keep these guys gainfully employed,” said Heath of the place where through the years the military has provided more and more distractions for off-duty prison troops from their own private open-air cinema to fishing on the bay and, recently, jet skis.

The New Orleans band Spice and the Po Boys came through recently to celebrate Mardi Gras with a show at the base Tiki Bar, far from the prison camps but near the trailer park where detention center staff stay.

Still, with all the troops and so few detainees, Heath said firmly, “discipline is not a problem here.”

“We have incidents just like every place does but there is no greater instance of any kind of misbehavior here than I’ve seen in my 26 years in the Army.”

Make no mistake, he said, “This is not spring break down here. They are not sitting on the beach.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg