S.F. liberals to host new Gitmo on Alcatraz?

Republicans, fighting President Obama's order to shutter the prison, are using one suggestion of a substitute location to needle Democrats.

Published January 26, 2009 4:10PM (EST)

As a general rule, it's hard to go wrong -- at least politically -- by playing to Americans' inherent NIMBYism. So naturally, that's what Republicans are trying to do as they argue against the closure of the military prison in Guantánamo Bay. But their arguments have now become, frankly, transparently political, even outright silly.

Take one comment House Minority Leader John Boehner made Sunday: "You know, if, if the liberals in America believe that Gitmo ought to go, then maybe we ought to just open Alcatraz and move those prisoners there."

Boehner's not the only member of his party to suggest Alcatraz, the infamous prison in San Francisco Bay, as a replacement for Guantánamo; Sen. Kit Bond and Rep. Bill Young have also floated the idea. And again, as political theater, this isn't a bad move. Poking those wimpy, hypocritical San Francisco liberals certainly appeals to the base, and it's also an opportunity to take a shot at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose district is in the city.

But this is one of those moments that reminds us why, exactly, everyone hates Congress. Even for political theater, this is just absurd; it's not an attempt to actually provide a solution, just a chance to taunt the Democrats to score a cheap point. Boehner, Bond and Young surely know how unworkable the idea is. Alcatraz is, as Pelosi herself observed, a national park -- it hasn't served as a working prison for more than 45 years. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy shut it down in 1963 because the buildings were eroding and the facility was much more expensive to operate than its counterparts. At the time, a necessary renovation to fix the crumbling structures would have cost $5 million. That's about $35 million in today's dollars, and that's a baseline that doesn't take into account the further damage that's occurred over the years, the cost of transforming a tourist attraction back into a secure prison, the cost of modernization or the expense of bringing on an entirely new staff.

A Fox News article on the subject, naturally, pokes at Pelosi, suggesting she doesn't have a sense of humor. It also includes this sentence describing Boehner's response to the speaker's point about Alcatraz being a park: "That explanation didn't stop House Minority Leader John Boehner from repeating the suggestion on Sunday, making that point that closing down Guantanamo by year's end may not be the best plan considering the recidivism rate of terrorist detainees is about 12 percent."

That's a whole other issue, one where those advocating for Guantánamo to remain open are using statistics that are misleading without context. Assuming that the Pentagon's figures about detainees released from Guantánamo returning to the battlefield are correct -- there's reason to believe they're wildly inflated, but let's just make the assumption for the moment -- the recidivism rate is, as Fox says, about 11 or 12 percent. As Peter Bergen pointed out to CNN, that's less than one-fifth of the recidivism rate for U.S. state prisoners, which is about 65 percent.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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