Opinion

Commentary: Gitmo is a picnic compared to U.S. prisons

President Obama's promise to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba has hit a snag because he hasn't figured out what to do with the 240 detainees.

Some Democratic and Republican senators — and even FBI officials — say it's risky to bring terror suspects to the United States and lock them up here.

Apparently even the scrawniest Taliban is so cunning and strong that he'll be able to break out of our toughest maximum-security prisons — prisons that nobody ever escapes from, except in the movies.

The argument that there's no place secure enough to hold these guys is astounding, considering the number of vicious maniacs and murderous psychos who are currently behind bars in the United States.

No other country incarcerates more people, so we've become pretty darn efficient at designing prisons. The feds have a "supermax" facility in Florence, Colo., from which a cockroach couldn't escape, and there are others.

Even budget-strapped states like Florida know how to ice the bad guys. Here, the most volatile criminals are housed in garden spots such as the Union Correctional or the Florida State Prison in sunny Raiford.

According to the state Department of Corrections, exactly zero prisoners escaped from those facilities – or any other high-security prisons – last year. A few knuckleheads snuck away from work camps and road gangs, but almost all were quickly recaptured.

It's a safe bet that terror suspects brought to this country wouldn't be assigned to spear litter in the median of I-95. They would more sensibly be incarcerated 24/7 in the same wing with the lifers – killers, Mafia bosses, street-gang leaders.

But even that scenario touches on another weird concern voiced by Obama's critics – that relocated Guantanamo detainees might secretly attempt to recruit American inmates to the jihadist cause.

Think about this. Some of the worst bad-asses on the planet now reside in the U.S. prison system. Their geopolitical views have never been of widespread interest or concern, because most of these characters are either sitting on Death Row, or serving multiple life sentences with no chance of parole.

The best place to put a hardcore al Qaeda guy is in a cell next to, say, a gang banger who's doing 250 years. If by chance the gang banger falls under the hypnotic spell of his new pal and decides he wants to convert, let him!

Give him a T-shirt and a rally cap and a skull tattoo of Osama bin Laden. Who cares? The dude's never getting out of prison. Ever.

Nobody knows for sure how many of the 240 remaining detainees at Gitmo pose a genuine threat. Of the hundreds of suspects rounded up after the invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, only three have actually been convicted by U.S. military tribunals.

Many were released after years of imprisonment with no charges brought, after the Pentagon finally decided they posed no security risk. If those guys didn't despise the United States before their confinement at Guantanamo, they probably do now.

Imagine if 240 Catholics or 240 Jews were held by a foreign government on an island prison, without being formally accused of any crimes. It wouldn't take years to shut down that operation; it would take about two days.

But on this side of the world there's not much sympathy for Muslims in custody. The Bush administration assured us that Gitmo was full of bad actors, even as it quietly eased many of them out the back door.

A new Pentagon study estimates that about one of every seven freed detainees has become active in terrorism again – a recidivism rate that isn't soothing but would still be the envy of any U.S. prison.

Without question, some of the remaining Gitmo detainees are hardcore, dangerous radicals. The government wants to prosecute 80 of them, and believes there are others at the camp who cannot be tried but still present a grave menace.

The rest of the detainees will need to be moved somewhere and eventually freed. Not surprisingly, few countries are putting out the welcome mat. That's the problem when you round up somebody as a possible terrorist and then change your mind.

What endures in a climate of fear is the presumption of guilt, even in the absence of hard evidence or a conviction. As surely as guilty men were sent to Guantanamo, so were innocents. That's the shame of it.

Prosecuting the real bad guys will be dicey, especially with the issue of torture being employed during some of the interrogations.

That's probably why Obama changed his mind about using military tribunals, a decision that has brought heavy criticism from the left. The debate might well be decided by the federal judiciary.

In the meantime, it's almost comical to suggest that any of the ''high-value'' detainees at Gitmo – including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind – cannot safely be incarcerated on U.S. soil.

We've got plenty of prisons from which there's no possible escape, and some of them make Guantanamo look like Club Med. Mohammed might soon be begging to go back.

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