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U.S. Prisons Could Hold Guant?namo Detainees, After Serious Modifications

Posted by Regina on December 15, 2012 at 12:15 PM


 

 

Although Congress has passed several pieces of legislation barring the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to U.S. mainland facilities and the administration has dropped its plans to close the prison, if the government reversed its position, it has plenty of options for housing detainees domestically, according to a new report.

 

The Defense Department has a half-dozen facilities that could, theoretically, hold detainees, and the Justice Department has 98 that already contain prisoners who were either convicted on terrorism-related charges or have histories connected to terrorism, according to the Government Accountability Office. However, the report also notes that if those prisons were to start holding detainees, they would have to make significant operational changes for safety and security reason, which could be costly.

 

Additionally, any discussion of transferring the detainees is purely in the realm of the theoretical. The issue was effectively decided years ago; closing Guantánamo is massively unpopular among most Republicans and some Democrats. In a letter to the GAO, Lee J. Lofthus, assistant attorney general for administration, said that “generally speaking, the Bureau of Prisons and Marshals Service have the correctional expertise to safely and securely house detainees with a nexus to terrorism,” but immediately added that the offices have no plans to do so.

 

“Under current U.S. law, DOJ does not consider itself to have authority to maintain custody of DOD detainees under the [Authorization for Use of Military Force],” the GAO report said. “According to DOJ officials, DOJ does not have plans to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to its facilities in the United States, and such a transfer is prohibited by law.”

 

But the lawmaker who commissioned the report in 2008 — a year before Congress passed the first of many appropriations laws (PL 111-32) prohibiting the administration from using federal money for detainee transfers — drew encouragement from the report.

 

“This report demonstrates that if the political will exists, we could finally close Guantánamo without imperiling our national security,” said Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a release. “The GAO report makes clear that numerous prisons exist inside the United States—operated by both the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice—capable of holding the 166 detainees who remain at Guantánamo in an environment that meets the security requirements.”

 

Feinstein highlighted the report’s finding that Justice Department facilities already contain 373 inmates convicted of terrorism charges.

 

“To say that high-risk detainees cannot be held securely in a maximum security prison is just plain wrong. . . . As far as I know, there hasn’t been a single security problem reported in any of these cases,” said Feinstein, who argues that moving the inmates out of Guantánamo would present a cost savings.

 

The GAO report explicitly says it was designed to evaluate the issues for housing detainees if they were sent to prisons on the U.S. mainland, not judge whether those prisons would be suitable for them. In the Defense Department’s case, it looked at six facilities that house inmates for over a year, including one that holds individuals who receive sentences of more than five years or the death penalty.

 

If a transfer occurred, Defense officials told the GAO they would plan on providing the same level of detention currently seen at Guantánamo. However, there would be complications. For one, the inmates in Defense Department prisons are servicemembers, and U.S. law prohibits members of the armed forces to associate with foreign nationals while imprisoned, so the facilities would either have to transfer out military prisoners or keep the detainee population segregated.

 

Also, the military prisons might not have sufficient medical services on-site and, despite only a 48 percent occupation rate at the six facilities, their current configuration might have trouble with 166 new occupants. The report also expressed concerns about keeping guards, and the areas around the prisons, safe and said the department could have to build new facilities for intelligence-related interviews of detainees.

 

“According to DOD officials, the physical location of the detainees could become a target for individuals and groups intent on harming the detainees, or harming the U.S. military personnel involved in detention operations — which could result in unintended harm to the general public,” the report said.

 

Justice Department facilities are already familiar with segregating troublesome inmate populations, but they present their own problems: systemwide overcrowding is at about 38 percent, so reshuffling current prisoners to create a closed-off area for detainees would be difficult. The department also would have to come up with new policies for handling the detainees, including a framework for holding those who have not been charged with or convicted of violating U.S. law.

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