Your Turn: Leavenworth can handle Gitmo prisoners

President Obama is making a final effort to close the prison at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Gov. Sam Brownback, Sen. Pat Roberts, and the entire Kansas congressional delegation are in full-throated opposition to the possible relocation of some of the Guantanamo prisoners to the U. S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. Roberts reminds us that these men, captured many years ago in the early stages of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, are more than just prisoners of war, they are terrorists and “there is no way to control who the terrorists would attract to our communities.” As a result “everyone in the vicinity would live with a target on their back.”

And, he points out, Leavenworth “lies right on the Missouri River, providing terrorists with the possibility of covert travel underwater and attempting access to the detention facility.” Besides, “the facilities at Guantanamo are doing a fantastic job of holding these terrorists.”

Several months ago, Brownback held a “town hall meeting” in Leavenworth where he announced his opposition to the relocation of prisoners saying, “We’re going to fight this with everything we’ve got.” Most of the audience agreed with him.

Aside from standard “not in my back yard” politics and the mongering of fear, what are the facts, and what is the truth about the prisons of Leavenworth?

Established in 1827, Leavenworth is the first city settled in Kansas, and Fort Leavenworth is the oldest Army post west of Washington, D.C. Leavenworth was the forward destination for much of the early settlement of the American West. What is now the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth started in 1874.

Today there are four federal prisons in Leavenworth and the primary Kansas state prison is in Lansing, next door. All told, the five prisons hold more than 7,000 inmates, the reason Leavenworth is called “prison town.” With a population of about 45,000, there is one inmate for every seven residents of Leavenworth and Lansing. Prisons are by far the primary employers. Many employees are the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of prison employees. Some of their work is dangerous; after all, the inmates are criminals.

Leavenworth people know how to do prisons. They handled Machine Gun Kelly, several Mafia members including most of the Lucchese crime family, James Earl Ray, Tom Pendergast, Michael Vick. Right now Whitey Bulger is locked up in Leavenworth, as are Nidal Hasan, Hasan Akbar, and Chelsea Manning. No one ever escapes.

Then there is the matter of cost. The present estimate is that Fort Leavenworth spends about $78,000 annually for each maximum security inmate. Because of a complete lack of economies of scale it costs $2.7 million annually for each inmate held at Guantanamo.

Among Leavenworth prison employees there is a palpable sense of mission, a collective professionalism, and a shared pride in the quality of their work. They are the best of the “barbed wire bureaucracy.” A mark of their effectiveness can be understood in the juxtaposition of the difficulty of what they do and the fact that we hear so little about it. We only hear about prisons when things go wrong, and things seldom go wrong at Leavenworth.

If the remaining Iraq/Afghanistan prisoners (inmates, terrorists) held at Guantanamo are to be relocated, Leavenworth is a good alternative. That is the truth. The question is whether our political leaders can handle the truth. To borrow words and wisdom from the playwright Aaron Sorkin’s stage play and film about Guantanamo, “A Few Good Men”:

Col. Jessep (played by Jack Nicholson): “You want answers?”

Lt. Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise): “I want the truth!”

Col. Jessep: “You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You … don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. … I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it.”

The truth is that the competent and brave people of Leavenworth can handle the Guantanamo prisoners.

— H. George Frederickson is an emeritus distinguished professor of public affairs at Kansas University.