By Jamey Dunn
Federal officials reiterated their intent today to purchase an Illinois prison by the end of the year, even if it may not be used to house terror suspects.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn announced in December that President Barack Obama’s administration intended to buy Thomson Correctional Center as part of a plan to fulfill Obama’s campaign vow to close the embattled federal Guantanamo Bay detention center. Inmates from Guantanamo would be housed in a dedicated area of Thomson, while the rest of it would be used for federal convicts.
Thomson, which is in northwest Illinois, has been virtually empty since its completion in 2001.
The plan stalled after losing support in Congress. A Senate committee approved a defense spending plan in May that lacked funding for the portion of the prison that would hold former Guantanamo detainees and be administered by the Defense Department and .
However, a letter from a Justice Department official sent to Durbin and Quinn on Monday lays out the Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) intentions to continue with the portion of the plan that would use Thomson as a federal prison.
“BOP plans to make certain modifications to the facility and hire and train a full complement of staff while the Defense Department continues to work with Congress to obtain authorization and funding for a portion of the Thomson facility.”
The bureau would have full run of the facility after it is purchased. Basically the part of the plan that involves housing terror suspects, which was the highly politicized and controversial aspect, has been put on the back burner, but the feds say they still need the prison. Illinois lawmakers who were opposed to the Guantanamo closure but also looking for any kind of financial stimulus in an economically hard hit area are probably breathing sighs of relief at the plan moving forward without that aspect, at least for the time being.
According to Quinn and Durbin, the sale would create about 3,000 jobs, half of which they expect to go to locals.
The BOP has more than 209,000 inmates in custody, up from 202,000 last year. Illinois faces its own crowding problem that has many prisons filled to double capacity, while a facility like Thomson has only seen a handful of prisoners because of a lack of funds.
Critics of the sale say Illinois should open Thomson to alleviate its own corrections system. Rep Jim Sacia, a Republican from nearby Pecatonica, said he has been trying every avenue to do just that since he got into office eight years ago, but the money just wasn’t and still isn't there. “If we couldn’t afford to open it then, don’t you dare get on your high horse and tell me we can afford to open it today,” he says.
According to the Department of Corrections, Thomson has been completely empty of prisoners and staff since the department shut it down May 1. Illinois and the federal government are conducting appraisals of the facility in anticipation of the sale.