Obama and Bureau of Prisons Lowball Supermax Costs

by | October 3, 2010

In response to questions at his September 10 press conference, President Obama spoke about his failure to fulfill his clear campaign promise to close the military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He blamed fear and “political rhetoric” for blocking his plan to move Gitmo detainees to prisons in on U.S. soil. In the course of discussing Guantánamo, Obama said:

And by the way, just from a purely fiscal point of view, the costs of holding folks in Guantánamo is massively higher than it is holding them in a supermax maximum security prison here in the United States.

There’s no question that the president’s statement was true. The trouble started when the federal Bureau of Prisons was asked to provide information on the cost of holding a prisoner in a U.S. supermax. The Miami Herald‘s Carol Rosenberg followed up on the numbers. In an article following the press conference, she wrote:

Pentagon reports the annual cost of running the prison camps, staffed by a variety of U.S. military troops, at $116 million. With a current population of 176 war-on-terror detainees, that’s more than $650,000 each.

By contrast, it costs nearly $5,575 a year to keep a prisoner in federal detention, said Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley on Friday. A Supermax prisoner’s cost might be a bit higher, she said, because of additional security.

That just didn’t sound right to us–neither the $5,575 figure, nor the fact that supermax costs would only be just “a bit higher.” And sure enough, a few days later Rosenberg reported: 

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman on Monday revised upwards the cost of housing a captive in federal detention, days after the bureau said it spends a tiny fraction of what the military spends at Guantánamo Bay.

The new figure — $27,251 a year per federal prisoner compared to $650,000 per captive at the U.S. base in Cuba — is still a tiny fraction. “Obviously we’re far less expensive than what the military is doing,” said Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross.

The per prisoner cost has exceeded $25,000 for several years now in the federal system, he said. It was unclear how a colleague arrived Friday at $5,750 a year, he said.

Now, $27,351 may still be a “tiny fraction” of what’s spent at Gitmo–but multiplied by more than 200,000 federal prisoners, it’s still a lot of money. More importantly, it’s still not an accurate figure for the cost of keeping a supermax prisoner–something the BOP spokesperson neglected to mention when he provided the “corrected” number.

If the Bureau of Prisons wished to provide an accurate projection of costs, it could have provided figures for ADX Florence, the notorious federal supermax in Colorado, or for the “Communications Management Units” (CMUs) at Marion or Terre Haute federal penitentiaries– the units that most resemble any proposed future home for Guantánamo detainees. Yet it chose instead to offer the media misleading lowball figures.

We do know that the average annual cost for a supermax prisoner, according to one study by the Urban Institute, is $75,000 a year, as opposed to $25,000 for a prisoner in the general population. At the Illinois State Tamms supermax, it’s about $92,000 a year.

And this does not take into account the cost of building supermax prisons in the first place. The price tage for ADX Florence, completed in 1994, was $60 million, and it houses only about 400 prisoners. Obama’s proposed future home for Gitmo detainees, an unused state prison in Thomson, Illinois, would cost $237 million to buy, retrofit, and activate.



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  • Joshlyn

    this is the BOP at thare best lol like i siad the old saying when a pollitshon opens thare mouth the bop takes that to a new standered if the BOP ses it 98% of the time they are lieing hears what they not saying obma fisrt off it not a supermax max it just supermax dah thow he wants to make tommson overkill as in he dosent want it to be a supermax he wants it to outdo adx he wants to pass standereds for supermax with it to buy and get on it feet you seen the cost i not sher that inclueds the faces lift and upgrades to the prison as well to make it exseed supermax wich means going cost more then that per inmate if obma gets his way you want know where your taxes and kids lerning and gramas nestegg and yours are going to build that supermax anyone herd the song creed my owen prison wondering if by time he out if he just have built his owen prison we know how mad we got at bush allmoest thow him in one cant wate to see what they do to him this nashion is the plane of justice your in my home now they want game they got it this nashion is all bout prison now like it or not it is the lifeblood at the end of all darknes it brings light to dark lands but canseres when it grows out of control like it has now the FBOP is by far a powerfal brach of power sadly are court is standing like the tribunal and leting this nashion kill itself slowly we keep going we all going be of justice not usa but poj we give up are rights so fast we are at the start of the age of justice and i not kissing no tribunal or BOP ass FBOP as in bleep BOP

  • Liza

    interesting.. so it is apparent the president is in complete denial of what is really going on in US prisons,, GOOD to know! at least we are clear we cannot count on him for justice or fairness.
    what next? and as that goes, what is up with the president making PSAs about food banks? is he prepping us for Russian like breadlines of the 80s?

  • Twitch - Entropy

    Can we say “Pork Barrel”? The media spin is so obvious the Feds will
    just cry foul even if favoritism is rubbed in their faces and up their noses.
    Not that I promote expanding Florence to accommodate this travesty of
    justice, for what it’s worth for the fiscal-minded folks; the disparity in the
    cost comparisons the “public” is footing the bill both figuratively and in
    the loss of humanitarian values – is astounding!

    Twitch – Entropy,
    Central Texas ABC

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