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Cost of feeding Guantanamo detainees averages $12.68 a day

The Bush administration is spending $12.68 a day per prisoner to feed suspected terrorists at its detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—more than four times what it costs to feed federal prison inmates in the United States.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, first hinted at the cost in television appearances protesting an Amnesty International assessment of Guantanamo as a "gulag," comparing it to the Soviet-era penal system where prisoners sometimes starved in forced-labor camps.

In appearance on "Fox News Sunday" a week ago, Myers said the government was spending $2.5 million on "proper Muslim-approved food ... just to make sure they're fed right."

Pentagon officials later provided a per-prisoner cost at Knight Ridder's request after a reporter used the number of prisoners at Guantanamo, 520, to extrapolate the likely per-person expense and compare it with other penal facilities. A spokesman said the official number is based on an average inmate population of 540.

The comparison shows that the military is spending far more on a per-person basis to feed the prisoners at Guantanamo than is spent at a wide range of U.S.-based jails.

For example, the cost of feeding each of the 184,318 prisoners in 14 U.S. federal prisons is $2.78 a day, spokeswoman Carla Wilson said.

The 450 military prisoners held at the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks in Kansas cost between $6.02 and $8.17 a day to feed, said spokeswoman Janet Wray.

It costs $7.46 a day to feed each of the two suspected terrorists currently held at the U.S. Navy Brig in Charleston, S.C., said Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman.

The local jail in Miami-Dade County, Fla., spends $2.19 a day on each prisoner's food or $3.60 if you calculate salaries and equipment, said Cmdr. Debbie Graham. If a Miami-Dade prisoner requires a kosher meal, which is similar to Islam's no-pork halal diet, the county spends an additional $3 a prisoner for a prepackaged dinner at night.

Military spokesmen say the high price at Guantanamo is the result of a Muslim population's special needs at a remote site.

Since soon after the prison opened in January 2002, the Pentagon has emphasized that the U.S. military provides prisoners with Qurans and Muslim-approved halal meat to portray it as sensitive to Islam.

By disclosing the $2.5 million food sum, Myers offered a rare glimpse into the cost of running the controversial offshore center, which has been the focus of federal court battles and complaints from human-rights groups.

Officials had refused to release details of the costs until Wednesday, when prison camp spokesman Col. Brad Blackner revealed the $12.68 a day figure.

There's little doubt that the higher meal cost is due, in part, to the base's remoteness and the special dietary needs of the Muslim prisoners.

Cut off from Fidel Castro's economy by politics and a minefield, the base functions like a ship at sea, importing all goods by cargo plane or a barge from Jacksonville, Fla.

Every month, each detainee gets nearly 10 pounds of halal-certified meat, Blackner said, one-third of it beef, two-thirds of it chicken, brought in frozen on the barge.

Blackner said Guantanamo's culturally sensitive menu also includes whole wheat bagels, fresh fruit, rice pilaf, chicken breast in orange sauce, string cheese, veggie patties, dates, baklava and yams. A typical day's meals provide an inmate with about 2,600 calories, he said.

Guards serve the meals in Styrofoam containers, along with a plastic "spork," a combination fork-spoon, which the prisoners must return for fear it will become a weapon.

Pentad Corp. of Las Vegas has the contract to feed "all military personnel and detainees" at the base, said Navy spokesman Bill Dougherty. Under the contract, Pentad also delivers the food to the base.

Some analysts said the high cost was typical of military procurement contracts, but others said the expense was probably worth it.

"The alternatives are to feed them badly, to not show proper respect. And anything we do for people that is not appropriate is fodder for radicals that want to stir up trouble for the United States," said Michael O'Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who's an expert on U.S. defense strategy and budgeting.

As for U.S. military personnel at the base, the cost of feeding them is also high—about $8.25 a day, Blackner said.

For that, U.S. personnel at Guantanamo have a wide selection of food served on a cafeteria line, Blackner said.


(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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