November 15, 2009
BY LYNN SWEET Sun-Times Columnist
WASHINGTON -- Detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba may be transferred to a nearly vacant maximum-security state prison in northwest Illinois, the Obama White House said Saturday.
The Thomson Correctional Center is one of several facilities a Justice and Defense Department Task Force said is in the running, along with prisons in Michigan, Montana, South Carolina and possibly other locations.
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Gov. Pat Quinn has had discussions with President Barack Obama about the federal government purchasing Thomson Correctional Center in northwest Illinois.
POLS SQUARE OFF ON DETAINEES $140 mil. prison little used since it was built in '01
As the White House signaled on Saturday that Thomson is under serious consideration, Illinois officials split on party lines -- Democrats for, Republicans against -- over bringing the detainees to President Obama's adopted home state, echoing a major national debate over Guantanamo, which became an international black eye.
Obama is unlikely to keep his pledge -- made on his first day in office -- to close the controversial Guantanamo prison complex by Jan. 22 and transfer detainees to the United States for trials, either in federal courts or military tribunals. With Obama's first anniversary in office approaching, Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Friday that five suspected Sept. 11 masterminds would be tried in New York, a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood.
Gov. Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will outline proposals for the prison's future at news conferences in Rock Island, Chicago and Rockford today and will announce that federal officials will make a site visit to Thomson on Monday.
Thomson was completed in 2001, but the 1,600-bed facility didn't open at the time because of the State of Illinois' cash crunch. The facility's minimum-security operation has about 200 prisoners.
A White House source told the Sun-Times on Saturday that no final decisions have been made.
If the prison is acquired by the federal government, Thomson would be run as a supermax facility housing federal prisoners. A portion of it would be leased to the Defense Department for a "limited number" of Guantanamo detainees -- about 100, according to Durbin. About 215 prisoners are now at Guantanamo.
Durbin's office has been quarterbacking the potential sale of the prison through a series of meetings between the White House and Quinn, who is looking to generate revenues for the cash-strapped state.
According to an economic impact analysis by the Obama administration, the federal purchase and operation of Thomson could generate $1 billion for the local economy over four years and create between 2,340 and 3,250 jobs.
Quinn and Obama discussed converting Thomson to a federal facility at a Nov. 4 White House meeting. In a Nov. 12 letter to Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the governor acknowledged that Guantanamo prisoners could end up at Thomson.
"As plans are being formulated to potentially move federal prisoners and to locate a limited number of detainees in the United States, we stand ready to provide you with any assistance as this process moves forward," said the letter, which was obtained by the Sun-Times.
Quinn also said the plan has the support of Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler, whose economically depressed town paid for expensive infrastructure improvements for a prison that never fully opened.