Almost every day, officials in Iraq arrest and imprison dozens of suspected Islamic State (ISIS) militants. According to Human Rights Watch, over the past two years, more than 9,000 have been sent to jail on ISIS-related charges, and most of them are housed in Iraqi Kurdistan because of its relatively tighter security. It might seem like good news that so many terrorists have been taken off the battlefield, but the number of prisoners is becoming a serious problem, especially as Iraqi and Western forces push deeper into ISIS' territory and make even more arrests. The vast number of inmates is putting enormous pressure on Iraq’s and Kurdistan’s economies and criminal justice systems and may create a whole new set of ISIS threats.
Housing an ISIS prisoner is expensive. In a region where the average teacher’s salary is $300 a month, incarceration costs about $250 per day per prisoner, according to Dler Aggid, a former director of the Kurdish regional security forces' jail in Garmean. Food alone accounts for $42 per day; other expenses include security and housing. Health care is especially costly, because in addition to routine care, many ISIS prisoners require extensive treatment for severe wounds sustained around the time of their captures. One failed Chechen suicide bomber, for example, spent a month in the hospital and three more receiving medical treatment for gunshot and shrapnel wounds before he was well enough to face trial. The ongoing Iraqi financial crisis is making things worse. “Last year, we were not able to take prisoners from the prison to the courts,” Shwan Burhan, who works for the legal department of Muaskar Salam prison, told me. “We just could not afford the gas.”
Overcrowding is also a growing problem. Muaskar Salam prison was built to house 1,000 prisoners. Now it holds 1,200. The Garmean jail, the facility closest to the frontline with ISIS near northern Diyala and Saladin Provinces, was designed to hold 50 prisoners. It is now houses three times as many inmates. Kurdistan regional security