In recent days, several members of Congress have objected to an Obama administration plan to bring Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons in an attempt to close the island detention facility. The administration’s plan, which has not yet been officially announced, reportedly includes housing some detainees in military prisons in Kansas and South Carolina or high-security federal prisons. Cue the congressional freak out.
But there’s no need for these objections. U.S. prisons already safely house dangerous criminals, and the people who run them say they can handle the detainees.
The administration is apparently looking to bring the detainees slated for indefinite detention or trial to the United States (other detainees are approved for release, and are presumably not part of this arrangement). If the Congressional fear of bringing these detainees to the U.S. is real, it’s unfounded. If it’s manufactured--an effort to obstruct Obama and gain favor from constituents at the expense of logic and real security concerns--it’s a shame.
It also seems ridiculous to claim that Guantanamo detainees pose some sort of special threat given that U.S. prisons already house al Qaeda terrorists.
Men responsible for the East Africa bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, including high-ranking al Qaeda officials, as well as those responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing and other plots (Ramzi Yousef and Omar Abdel Rahman), are all in federal prison, most sentenced to life.
The list of dangerous inmates also includes gang leader Harry Bowman, who ordered murders, bombing, and beatings of rival gang members. Also locked up in U.S. prisons are domestic terrorists “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, and Terry Nichols, notorious cult leader Charles Manson, and multiple serial killers.
So it’s no surprise that prison officials and union representatives have said that U.S. prisons can handle Guantanamo detainees. In 2009, when Obama first floated the idea of bringing detainees to the U.S., James Gondles Jr., the executive director of the American Correctional Association (ACA) published an op-ed titled, “We Can Handle Them.” He wrote, “Listening to the current debate, one might think that we have never before incarcerated terrorists in U.S. prison facilities and that we don't know how to handle them. This is nonsense.” That same year, the ACA’s Delegate Assembly adopted a resolution that stated:
“THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the American Correctional Association does hereby assure Congress and our elected leaders that they can have every reasonable expectation that public safety would be secure and that there would be no danger or imminent threat to the American people should they decide to transfer detainees from foreign countries to federal, state or military facilities in the United States.”
Also in 2009, then-Director of the Justice Department Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, told Congress that for international terrorists and other dangerous prisoners, “…we put additional controls in place through a classification system that places them in a more restrictive environment.” And Bryan Lowry, a representative for correction officers union The Council of Prisons told the New York Times, “We have detained some very dangerous, violent inmates. But our staff are well-trained. We are professional, and I believe we can take on any mission and house any type of inmate,” and in a press release wrote, “We welcome the idea of protecting our nation, and the world, from these detainees.”
The Government Accountability Office also published a detailed report titled “Guantanamo Bay Detainees: Facilities and Factors for Consideration if Detainees Were Brought to the United States,”examining if it would be possible to bring detainees into military or federal prison facilities in the U.S. While the report acknowledges that modifications to facilities and staff may be needed, the concerns could be dealt with in a safe and secure way for both military and federal prisons.
To be sure, there are issues with bringing the detainees to the U.S. that deserve consideration, such as the establishment of indefinite detention without trial in U.S. prisons, but safety isn’t one of them. The fear just doesn’t conform to reality. Congressional objectors should listen to the professionals and stop exaggerating the threat.
Jacobson is a researcher at Human Rights First.