White House: IL prison eyed for Guantanamo inmates
November 15, 2009
CHICAGO (AP) – The Obama administration may buy a near-empty prison in rural northwestern Illinois to house detainees from Guantanamo Bay along with federal inmates, a White House official said Saturday.
The maximum-security Thomson Correctional Facility, about 150 miles west of Chicago, was one of several evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and emerged as a leading option to house the detainees, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because a decision has not been made.
President Barack Obama wants alleged terrorism suspects from the controversial military-run detention center in Cuba to be transferred to U.S. soil so they can be prosecuted for their suspected crimes.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has been hinting at a possible new use for Thomson, and he issued a statement saying he would hold a news conference Sunday to outline those plans.
Quinn’s spokeswoman Marlena Jentz did not return a phone message from the AP Saturday.
Thomson was built by the state in 2001 with 1,600 cells, but budget problems prevented it from fully opening, and it now houses about 200 minimum-security inmates.
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It is unclear how many Guantanamo detainees – many held without charges since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan – would be transferred to Illinois or when. Obama initially planned to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by Jan. 22, but the administration is no longer expected to meet that deadline.
If the Federal Bureau of Prisons buys the facility, it would be run primarily as a federal prison, but a portion would be leased to the Defense Department to house a limited number of Guantanamo detainees, the White House official said. Perimeter security at the site would be increased to surpass that at the nation’s only Supermax prison, in Florence, Colo., the official said.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-highest-ranking Democrat, said in a statement Saturday he would support the plan. He said the prison would house fewer than 100 Guantanamo detainees and would have a “significant positive impact on the local economy” by generating more than 3,000 jobs.
Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler said the move would generate desperately needed revenue for the town of about 500 residents near the Mississippi River.
“It’s been sitting there for eight to nine years and our town is like a ghost town,” Hebeler said of the prison, adding that a tavern recently closed and a planned housing development fell through. “Everybody moved or got different jobs.”
Some lawmakers opposed the idea of terrorism suspects being brought to Illinois.
U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Northbrook Republican running for Obama’s old Senate seat, circulated a letter among elected officials asking them to write to Obama opposing the plan, saying bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the state would make it a target for terrorist attacks.
U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, whose district includes Thomson, said he adamantly opposed the proposal and that he has consistently joined with a majority of his colleagues “in fighting efforts to bring these terrorists onto our shores … where they could one day be released into our communities.”
Guantanamo Bay “is set up to house these dangerous terrorists, and they should stay there,” said Manzullo, an Egan Republican who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade.
Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, said Kirk and other Republicans were “pandering to irrational fears” and that closing the Guantanamo Bay facility would strengthen national security because al-Qaida used it as a recruiting tool.
Phone and e-mail messages left with Jim O’Connor, a spokesman for Illinois Sen. Roland Burris, were not immediately returned.
Thomson is not the only U.S. town that had hoped to lure Guantanamo detainees. Officials in Marion, Ill., Hardin, Mont., and Florence, Colo., also have said they would welcome the jobs that would be generated.
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