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Inside Trump's Gitmo, which is scheduled to stay open another 25 years

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Rear Admiral John Ring
Rear Adm. John Ring says without funding from Congress, he will have trouble caring for aging detainees and one detention camp will fall into disrepair. -
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NBC News
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GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Inside detention Camp 6, where guards monitoring detainees' lunchtime wear face shields to avoid being spat on or splashed with bodily fluids, Rear Adm. John Ring sits calmly at a metal table bolted to a concrete floor and offers a reminder.

"I'm the innkeeper," says Ring. "I don't make laws. People in D.C. tell me when people are going away, when people may be coming in, and my job is to keep these folks comfortable, safe."

Ring, who arrived here in April, is the commander in charge of the 16-years-and-running mission known as Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

Rear Adm. John Ring says without funding from Congress, he will have trouble caring for aging detainees and one detention camp will fall into disrepair.
Rear Adm. John Ring says without funding from Congress, he will have trouble caring for aging detainees and one detention camp will fall into disrepair.NBC News

His challenge is that he's been told to keep his inn open another 25 years, but hasn't been given the money to pay for it.

The Obama administration's stated goal was to close Guantanamo Bay Prison, or Gitmo. Under President Donald Trump, the detention camp for alleged terrorists is now an "enduring mission."

There are 40 detainees left at Gitmo. Detainees who arrived as young men are growing old. Their average age is 46, and one is now 71.

Inside a detainee\'s cell at Guantanamo.
Inside a detainee\'s cell at Guantanamo.NBC News

The controversial interrogation techniques that were once synonymous with Gitmo would provide no battlefield intelligence today, Ring said, because the last detainee was transferred here in 2008.

Instead he worries about cell doors that aren't wide enough for wheel chairs and hospital beds, what it would look like to build something resembling a nursing home at Guantanamo, and one detention camp that is on the verge of falling into disrepair.

Addressing those issues is not possible without $89 million the military has requested from Congress for the last five years to build a new detention camp at Guantanamo and make needed repairs to medical facilities.

Julia Ainsley of NBC News with Rear Adm. John Ring at Guantanamo.
Julia Ainsley of NBC News with Rear Adm. John Ring at Guantanamo.NBC News

That camp would be called Camp 8 and become the new home of detainees in the secret Camp 7. No one without a high-level security clearance is allowed to enter Camp 7, or even know its location on the island. But Ring needs to describe it in order to make his case for funding.

"It's sort of falling into the ground and deteriorating rapidly," he said.

Upgrades in care

As for the aging population, Ring says it's a matter of when, not if, he will need wheelchair-accessible facilities.

One detainee, Abd Al Hadi, a 56-year-old Iraqi accused of commanding al Qaeda in Afghanistan, recently underwent emergency spine surgery. His recovery postponed his court hearing from September to early 2019 and he has been wheelchair-bound in the process.

Hadi's attorneys say he needed the surgery months before he got it, a claim Ring brushes off as a legal defense strategy.

Inside a detainee\'s cell at Guantanamo.
Inside a detainee\'s cell at Guantanamo.NBC News

Ret. Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist who has done work with detainees in Gitmo, said the delays in care for Hadi and others stem from the necessity of having to fly in specialists, the lack of trust that sometimes exists between the detainee patients and doctors, and medical facilities that need to be updated to detect problems, particularly in an aging population.

"It's a planning issue," said Xenakis. "The question is at one point do you decide, as you look at this population and demographic, how you are going to care for heart disease without a full-time cardiologist or neuropsychiatric symptoms without a neurosurgeon."

Expanding population?

Funding needs for Gitmo are likely to grow if guards are asked to take in more detainees. So far, the Trump administration has left open this possibility but has made no decision over who to transfer there or when to do it.

Ring says with his current staffing, he could accommodate 40 more detainees. With more funding and staff, he could take in 160. But he worries about an unfunded mandate if the Trump administration decides to drastically increase the population without Congress approving the funding.

For now, as the innkeeper, he's planning for the detainees on site. A horticulture program just restarted that allows "compliant" detainees the opportunity to plant cotton, herbs and tomatoes as a reward for good behavior. Ring says that seeing a process through to the end helps keep them mentally stable.

"It has a beginning, middle and end. That's helpful for them," Ring said.