Escape from Guantanamo

Shouldn't Republicans want terrorists dumped into the abusive U.S. prison system?

By Cristopher Beam

Some members of Congress are up in arms about the Obama administration's plan to transfer Guantanamo detainees to prisons in the United States. Objections range from legal (how do we try all 270?) to logistical (how do we move them?) to plain old NIMBY-ness: "Our constituents don't want these terrorists in their neighborhoods," said House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that none of these detainees has been convicted of anything — unlike the inmates already in constituents' neighborhoods. Also forget, if you can, the nonsensical nature of these objections. (Aren't most prisons already full of dangerous people?) Instead, consider this: If Guantanamo Bay detainees land in American prisons, they may find themselves treated worse than they are now.

The administration has not specified where exactly it would relocate detainees. It's generally assumed that most of them would land in a maximum-security facility. The federal "supermax" prison in Florence, Colo., already home to such unsavories as Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid, and Ramzi Yousef, the man responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, would be a logical destination. So would the Pentagon's maximum-security prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas or California's Pelican Bay State Prison.

But many members of Congress don't like the idea of terrorists breathing the same air as their constituents — even if it's behind three fences and two sets of bars. "Do you want the terrorists in your hometown?" asked Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas. Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia said he didn't "want to wake up one morning and on WMAL news hear that one of these guys did something."

In addition to the "Keep Terrorists out of America Act" — try opposing that — which would prohibit moving terrorists to U.S. facilities without the permission of state governors and legislatures, members have introduced bills that would keep the detainees out of their states. Some even specify the facilities. Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins wants to put a "Do Not Enter" sign on Fort Leavenworth, while Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn's would say, "No Terrorists Allowed" in the ultra-secure Supermax.

Some townships have volunteered to house the new arrivals. The city council in Hardin, Mont., which boasts a brand-new jail, voted 5-0 to invite the terrorism suspects. State officials didn't like the idea.

Wherever the detainees land, they're likely to encounter some of the less savory aspects of the U.S. prison system. It's something of a lose-lose situation: Either they get stuck in the harsh isolation of a maximum-security prison, or they get exposed to the dangers of less secure state and federal prisons.

Let's start with the supermaxes. (There is only one federal supermax prison, though several states have them, too.) There, detainees stay in 80-square-foot cells for 22½ hours a day. There are no windows except for a skylight outside the cell. For exercise, they get to spend an hour and a half in a cement room five days a week. According to a federal court ruling in 1995, "many, if not most, inmates in the [secure housing unit] experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation."

Some maximum-security facilities allow prisoners more freedom if they behave well. For example, in some maximum-security prisons in California, prisoners can leave their cells and read in a library. They can also watch TV or listen to the radio. Some even live two-to-a-cell and are allowed visits from family members.

The trade-off, of course, is that with more freedom comes higher risk. A 2007 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 4.5 percent of all state and federal inmates suffer some degree of sexual victimization. (Others put the estimate far higher.) The risk goes way up under certain conditions. When there is more than one inmate to a cell, says David Fathi of Human Rights Watch, "you worry much more about assault."

Prisoners accused of particularly heinous crimes — like, say, masterminding 9/11 — could be especially endangered. "My guess is they'd be at risk by virtue of the nature of their crime, and the stigma against them," says Linda McFarlane of Just Detention, a group that monitors sexual crime in prisons. "Even if they're being placed in high-security isolation situations, which they would be, we know those are situations where abuse has occurred." Some anecdotal evidence: Just Detention has received letters from 91 people in maximum-security or supermax prisons since 2004 claiming sexual victimization.

Of course, Guantanamo is no cake walk. Many detainees live in 6-by-8-foot cells with bright lights kept on 24 hours a day. They can't make phone calls or send mail. At least four prisoners have committed suicide in the last few years. But in the U.S. prison system, these suspects — and that's all they are at this point — would face an additional danger: Each would be a target.

This will be welcome news for politicians and commentators who believe Guantanamo detainees have been coddled. New York Rep. Peter King exalted the luxuries of Guantanamo's facilities: "If there's any scandal at Guantanamo, it is that the detainees are treated too well," he wrote in the New York Post in February. If they get transferred to the mainland, that won't be an issue.

8 May 2009 — Return to cover.