New conundrum at Guantanamo prison: Ageing detainees

Rear Admiral John C. Ring, the commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba,
Rear Admiral John C. Ring, the commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba,PHOTO: NYTIMES

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (NYTIMES) - Nobody has a dementia diagnosis yet, but the first hip and knee replacements are on the horizon. So are wheelchair ramps, sleep apnea breathing masks, grab bars on cell walls and, perhaps, dialysis. Hospice care is on the agenda.

More than 17 years after choosing the US military base in Cuba as "the least worst place" to incarcerate prisoners from the battlefield in Afghanistan, after years of impassioned debates over the rights of the detainees and whether the prison could close, the Pentagon is now planning for terrorism suspects still held in the facility to grow old and die at Guantanamo Bay.

With the Obama administration's effort to close the prison having been blocked by Congress and the Trump administration committed to keeping it open, and with military trials inching ahead at a glacial pace, commanders were told in 2018 to draw up plans to keep the detention center going for another 25 years, through 2043.

At that point, the oldest prisoner, if he lives that long, would be 96.

Another of the 40 people still held here - the Palestinian known as Abu Zubaydah, who was confined to a box the size of a coffin while held at a secret CIA site and waterboarded 83 times - would be 72.

Like him, a number of the detainees are already living with what their lawyers say are the physical and psychological aftereffects of torture, making their health especially precarious as they head towards old age.

"Unless America's policy changes, at some point we'll be doing some sort of end-of-life care here," said Rear Admiral John C. Ring, commander of the detention centre.


The prison is envisioning communal nursing home-style and hospice care confinement of detainees. Already, military commanders say, the detainees now suffer typical middle-age conditions: high blood pressure and cholesterol, joint pain, diabetes and sleep apnea.

The Guantanamo Bay prison has a revolving medical staff of 140 doctors, nurses, medics and mental health care providers. They care for the detainees but also provide some services to the 1,500 troops assigned to the prison.

Now, the Pentagon is seeking US$88.5 million (S$120 million) to build a small prison with communal hospice care capacity for the 15 detainees brought here from CIA black sites - six of whom await death penalty trials as alleged conspirators in the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and the US Navy destroyer USS Cole.

The initial cost estimate for the project in 2013 was US$49 million. In 2018, Ring estimated it at US$69 million. Congress declined to fund it, citing more urgent Defence Department infrastructure needs.