Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Feds to buy Thomson prison

By Jamey Dunn

The federal government agreed to purchase Thomson prison today amid ongoing controversies over moving suspected terrorists into the United States and the early release of Illinois inmates.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn announced in Washington, D.C., this afternoon that President Barack Obama’s administration has decided to buy Thomson prison in northwest Illinois with the intent of transferring some detainees there from Guantanamo Bay.

Top members of Obama’s administration sent a letter to Quinn earlier today detailing the plan. According to the letter, the prison would be run as two separate facilities, so federal inmates and terror suspects would never interact. The prisoners from Guantanamo would not be allowed visitors other than their lawyers. The feds also plan to beef up security to a level that they claim will exceed the safeguards of a federal “supermax” prison.

Obama called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, which holds more than 200 detainees, including suspected terrorists, soon after his inauguration. Finding a place to house some of these prisoners in the United States has proved to be one of the main hitches in the president’s plan.

Durbin and Quinn touted the arrangement as a boon for the local economy and a way to repurpose a state facility that has been sitting relatively unused for several years. According to Quinn the federal purchase of the prison could result in more than 3,000 jobs for the area.

Republican gubernatorial candidates followed the lead of their fellow party members on the national scene by criticizing Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo facility.“We’ve got an investment in Guantanamo Bay, and that’s where international terrorists ought to be held, tried and kept.” Sen. Bill Brady, Republican gubernatorial candidate from Bloomington said. “If the Obama administration can’t figure out how to run it, then they ought to get out of the business and let someone else do it.”

The announcement that an Illinois prison may soon be sold comes days after the Associated Press reported the Illinois Department of Corrections has been awarding prisoners months of early release time for good behavior in the first few days of their sentences, thus returning some violent offenders to the streets after they spent just a few weeks behind bars.

Quinn has since put a stop to the program, known as “meritorious good time,” and called for an investigation of the policy. It was not part of the plan Quinn announced in September to release nonviolent offenders early to save the state money.

His Democratic challenger, Comptroller Dan Hynes, supports the plan to sell Thomson. However, he questioned Quinn’s involvement in the release of Illinois prisoners who only served weeks of their sentences. “The governor is asking the people of Illinois to trust him on this difficult [Thomson] issue, which understandably causes some unease. It turns out his administration is secretly releasing criminals, some violent, from prison early.”

Quinn’s Republican opponents say that Thomson, which has never been filled to capacity, should stay under the control of the state and be opened to alleviate overcrowding in Illinois’ prison system. “How bad is it in Illinois? Our economic development program consists of relocating terrorists, and we have to argue about whether or not we should release violent criminals early,” Dan Proft, Chicago Republican gubernatorial candidate, said. “These are not complicated matters.”

Republicans on the state and federal level accused both Quinn and Obama of forcing the deal through without transparency, legislative approval or voter support. Jim Ryan, Republican candidate for governor, said that Quinn should slow down and get feedback from citizens. He proposed that a series of hearings be held in January after the distraction of the holiday season has passed.

Durbin countered such criticisms by claiming the plan has support from residents of the area surrounding Thomson. “We have looked at it carefully and closely, and we have done it with the understanding that, time and again, the people of our state of Illinois have risen to the challenge to serve this nation,” he said.

Officials may have been feeling the pressure of the January 2010 deadline that Obama set for closing Guantanamo Bay. However, he has since acknowledged that deadline will not be met.

For more information on the state of Illinois’ prison system read Bethany Jaeger’s September column.

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