Graduate students from the University of South Carolina traveled to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba during spring break, working and playing within sight of Camp America, where terrorist detainees are held.
The scholars’ mission?
“Capture everyday life in this clearly extraordinary place,” said Allison Marsh, assistant professor in the USC Department of History.
They interviewed military members, their families, civilians, contractors and foreign nationals. They had free run of the base but the prison where the Gitmo detainees are kept was off-limits. About 6,000 service members, civilians and contractors work at the base.
Despite the proximity of Camp America, Marsh said that she never had any concerns for her well-being.
“It’s probably the safest place on Earth. Obviously Charleston would be a different type of community. But I will say that the base runs just like every day life,” she said.
The Obama administration is considering holding Gitmo detainees — suspected foreign fighters and terrorists — on American soil, including the Naval Consolidated Brig in Hanahan. It’s a move that sparked opposition from locals and outcry from state politicians. However, Charleston has a history of housing prisoners of war and experts speculate that security upgrades necessary to house detainees and the distance from existing terror networks should insulate the community.
Both military and civilian locations are being evaluated and any plan would require congressional approval.
Hamid Khan, an adjunct professor at USC and former U.S. attorney, has an extensive background in the issue. He represented five Gitmo detainees, including a doctor and father of six inadvertently swept up in a Pakistani intelligence forces sting because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“One of the reasons I think the administration is looking back on this issue is sheer costs. Housing these individuals in this facility is enormously expensive. It might just be a matter of efficiency combined with the fact that our facilities in the U.S. are far more secure that sending them to Yemen or Somalia,” he said.
Most detainees were picked up in Afghanistan. The White House likes to use the term “captured on the battlefield.” Their nationalities vary. Many come from countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — but there are some from Britain and Australia, too, according to National Public Radio.
The Pentagon says the detainees fought alongside the Taliban during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan or they have direct links to al-Qaida. There have been repeated allegations that some of the prisoners were handed over to the U.S. by bounty hunters associated with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan — a group which fought against the Taliban.
At a cost of $2.8 million per prisoner per year, Guantanamo is the most expensive prison in the world. The costliest prison in the U.S., Colorado’s federal “Supermax,” runs a taxpayer tab of $78,000 per prisoner per year, according to a story published last fall in the The New Republic.
Maintaining the prison at Guantanamo has cost the American taxpayer $4.8 billion since it opened in 2002, and an average of $493 million every year for the last five years, says the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 2013, taxpayers spent $454 million on detention operations at Guantanamo Bay or about $3.9 million per detainee, the ACLU says at its website.
During his first term, Obama promised to close Gitmo.
Nearly 800 prisoners have been held at Guantanamo since 2002, but now the detainee population there is down to 116. Of those, some 51 have already been cleared for transfer. But about half of the remaining detainees have been deemed too dangerous to release, which has led to the Pentagon’s search for a secure prison to house them on U.S. soil.
“There is still now in my opinion a significant core of people who they probably can’t prosecute under general federal law because of all the issues regarding evidence but who I think, and this is just a guess, they believe are some really bad apples. Their treatment of them is to detain them in perpetuity. That raises a legal question of whether they can do that,” Khan said.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback have made it clear their states want nothing to do with housing Gitmo detainees. In addition to the Navy brig, the government has said that it is evaluating Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as a site for the detainees.
State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said that moving Guantanamo detainees to the brig would “instantly” make neighboring Hanahan, which he represents, and the surrounding area a terrorist target.
“The reality is, I don’t think it’s been said bluntly and plainly enough — these guys are bad people who hate our country,” he said.
Merrill, a former House majority leader, is state director of the South Carolina campaign for Donald Trump’s bid to become the next president.
“And there are more bad people who hate our country in other countries who want them to be free, to be able to fight again,” he said.
In addition to Haley and Merrill, Republicans including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford have spoken out strongly against bringing detainees to the Lowcountry.
“I don’t see the point of taking a middle-class suburb in a medium-size city or near a medium-size city and putting it on a national map and giving terrorists a reason to take note of our community and our region,” Merrill said.
On Friday, Scott spoke with Defense Secretary Ash Carter to express his concerns about the possibility of putting Gitmo detainees at the Navy Brig. The senator will travel to Guantanamo Bay in the fall, said Sean Conner, Scott’s press secretary.
Department of Defense spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross said no decision has been made on where Guantanamo detainees might be housed. The assessment process for possible locations is still ongoing and there is no timeline for it to be completed.
“It’s all speculation. I think we are getting ahead of ourselves here. We are visiting a number of sites to gather information,” he said.
Military and civilian locations are under consideration. “We only consider maximum-security facilities,” he said.
The medium-security Navy brig would need a major upgrade costing hundreds of millions of dollars to qualify as a place to house Guantanamo detainees, Scott said.
Two DOD officials last week visited the Navy brig as part of the ongoing assessment process of possible places to keep Gitmo detainees. Scott, who met with the officials, held a news conference afterwards during which he blasted the idea of putting Gitmo prisoners there.
“My hope is they can make this all a moot point by keeping the law of the land as it is today,” Scott said.
Dr. Brian Norris, assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at The Citadel, said the “Not-in-my-backyard” reaction is nearly universal when it comes to prisons.
“Attitudes of nearby communities tend to change over time as security concerns do not materialize, and the benefits of employment become evident,” he said.
Periodically changing prison personnel discourages corruption. Federal authorities, especially the military, excel at being able to rotate personnel to keep them loyal to the institution, he said.
Norris has extensively studied prisons in Latin America. Drug lords fear extradition to the U.S. because they are less powerful when they are removed from their local networks. The Gitmo detainees, he noted, are already far removed from their base of support. The situation would be the same at the Navy brig, he said.
“We do not know much about how the U.S. government manages dangerous prisoners in Guantanamo. I have not read about a major security breach in Guantanamo, so I can’t imagine why the Department of Defense would change that winning formula in South Carolina,” he said.
The Navy originally built the brig, located at the southern end of the Naval Weapons Station, as a medium-security holding site for military prisoners serving sentences of 10 years or less. It has 10 separate wings for as many as 400 inmates. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the military converted one of those wings into what it called the Special Housing Unit, or SHU.
The brig’s mission expanded when terror detainee Yaser esam Hamdi, an American citizen, was delivered there in 2002. He’d been captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan. Two other high-profile inmates soon followed, including “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and Ali Saleh al-Marri, a Qatari arrested in Illinois as an alleged al-Qaida associate.
Padilla and al-Marri were transferred to the federal court system and both were sentenced to prison. Hamdi was released to Saudi Arabia in 2004.
In January, al-Marri was released and returned to Qatar. Last year, Padilla received a new, stiffer sentence of 21 years. He has been serving his time at a Supermax.
If terror detainees are transferred to the brig, it would not be the first time Charleston has been home to an enemy combatant camp.
A World War II prisoner of war camp that held 500 German soldiers who were imprisoned on 18 acres surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers was located west of the Ashley on Colony Drive. The camp existed for only two years and consisted mostly of tents, not buildings.
The site was one of five POW camps established in the Charleston area toward the end of the war.
Marsh’s USC students who went to Guantanamo Bay were part of her graduate level historic site interpretation class. The idea of the project is to focus on the long history of Guantanamo Bay going back to the Spanish-American War. The Guantanamo Public Memory Project will include oral histories from current residents combined with histories from people who are stateside but lived on the base, she said.
The Naval Base in Guantanamo is like a town where Camp America exists out of sight. She has seen the entrance gate, but even pictures of that are prohibited.
“You don’t think about the camp on the other side of the hill. It is not something that is a pressing daily concern of the people who live there,” she said.
She has a sister who works there as a government contractor.
“They have jobs and they go to their work and really the detainees are not part of their daily life. You have to know that they are there. For the most part every day life functions as normal,” she said.