Feds to acquire Ill. prison to house detainees

December 15, 2009 9:30:33 AM PST
A prison 150 miles west of Chicago could soon house detainees from Guantanamo Bay. It has remained virtually empty for the past eight years. Local politicians such as Senator Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn are in Washington D.C. awaiting President Barack Obama's announcement that Thomson prison will be the new home for suspected terrorists.

As he passed out coats and hats to students, state comptroller and Democratic candidate for governor Dan Hynes says he supports the move to use the correctional center for those from Gitmo.

"We can see positive influences in terms of economic development, so our national security and safety of those in Illinois have to be paramount," he said.

Hynes' primary opponent, Quinn, has been pushing for the prison plan.

"We have a secure, safe maximum security prison. And this can do the job," Quinn said.

The maximum security state prison was built nine years ago and cost $145 million but was never funded properly and sat nearly empty. Supporters of the move of suspected terrorists there say it will finally bring money and jobs to the small village. But a northern Illinois Republican congressman says he has serious concerns about terrorists in his district and says a security assessment has not been completed.

"This is moving so quickly," said Congressman Don Manzullo, (R) 16th District. "It's got to be stopped. We need to have hearings, and people need to know the nature of the threat and the impact it will have on the community other than the obvious economic help, which is welcome."

Other critics say it could make the area a target.

"It's an ill-advised move that ultimately will be regretted. Let's be clear the administration isn't closing Guantanamo, they are simply moving it to Illinois. Illinois deserves a better Christmas present than harboring terrorists," said Congressman Peter Roskam in a statement.

"The Obama administration is looking carefully at several different sites and will make a decision based on what's best for the safety and well being of our people," Hynes said.

A Durbin aide said the facility would house federal inmates and no more than 100 detainees from Guantanamo Bay, and they hope they will get $100 million to $200 million.

Officials from both the White House and Durbin's office confirmed that President Obama had directed the government to acquire Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., a sleepy town near the Mississippi River. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting Tuesday's announcement.

The White House has been coy about its selection process, but on Friday a draft memo leaked to a conservative Web site that seemed to indicate officials were homing in on Thomson.

The Thomson Correctional Center was one of several potential sites evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to potentially house detainees from the Navy-run prison at Guantanamo Bay. Officials with other prisons, including Marion, Ill., Hardin, Mont., and Florence, Colo., have said they would welcome the jobs that would be created by the new inmates.

Closing Guantanamo is a top priority for Obama, and he signed an executive order hours into his presidency directing that the process of closing the prison begin. Obama has said he wants terrorism suspects transferred to American soil so they can be tried for their suspected crimes.

The Thomson Correctional Center was built by Illinois in 2001 as a state prison with the potential to house maximum security inmates. Local officials hoped it would improve the local economy, providing jobs to a hard-hit community. State budget problems, however, have kept the 1,600-cell prison from ever fully opening. At present, it houses about 200 minimum-security inmates.

Obama has faced some resistance to the idea of housing terrorism suspects in the United States, but in Thomson many have welcomed the prospect as a potential economic engine. Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler, was asleep when the word came that Thomson had been chosen.

"It's news to me, but then I'm always the last to know anything," Hebeler said Monday night of the news affecting his town of 450 residents. "It'll be good for the village and the surrounding area, especially with all the jobs that have been lost here."

But Hebeler said he wouldn't rejoice until "the ink is on the paper" because previous plans for increased use of the nearly empty prison have fallen through.

Some Illinois officials have not supported the idea. GOP Rep. Mark Kirk, who is seeking Obama's old Senate seat, said he believes moving Guantanamo detainees to Illinois will make the state a greater threat for terrorist attacks. Kirk has lobbied other officials to contact the White House in opposition to using the facility.

To be sure, Thomson will not solve all the administration's Guantanamo-related problems. There still will be dozens of detainees who are not relocated to Thomson, other legal issues and potential resistance from Congress.

Thomson is a symbolic step, however, a clear sign that the United States is working to find a new place to hold detainees from Guantanamo.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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