By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn hopes to use money from the planned sale of the Thomson prison to the federal government to pay off some of the state’s overdue bills.
“I think we ought to pay our bills with that money,” Quinn said today after he and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced that a plan for the federal government to buy the empty state prison for $165 million will proceed. “And now, we’re going to move forward to make this a federal prison, and it’s going to be one of the best in America,” Durbin said today in Thomson. Quinn and Durbin estimate that the sale would bring more than 1,000 permanent jobs to the Thomson area in northwest Illinois.
The plan for the U.S. government to guy the prison, which has never been filled to capacity, was floated back in 2009 as a place to put Guantanamo Bay detainees. President Barack Obama had vowed to close the controversial detention camp in Cuba.
That’s not to say Illinois does not have enough prisoners to fill the Thomson prison, the Associated Press reported that the number of inmates in Illinois reached an all-time high in September. The Department of Corrections took issue with the AP’s math, but even by its own count, there are more than 15,000 more inmates than the system was designed for. The Thomson facility has housed some prisoners over the years but has never been remotely close to its capacity. The prison has not been truly operational since its completion in 2001 because it was never funded. (For more on Thomson and other unused state facilities, see Illinois Issues January 2012.)
While many in Illinois jumped at the chance to unload the underused prison and make some cash to help bolster the state’s struggling budget, the national politics over the closure of Guantanamo Bay, also known as Gitmo, and haggling over the price of sale stalled the plan.
But after it became clear that Obama’s campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay was not going to become a reality, Durbin and others still wanted to move forward to buy the Thomson prison as a way to alleviate the overcrowding in the federal corrections system. Republicans in Congress continued to opposed the purchase, citing concerns that the prison would still somehow be used at part of a Guantanamo closure plan. Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, who chairs a key spending House subcommittee, would not sign off on using unspent Department of Justice funds for the purchase.
Durbin said that the law requires that detainees such as those at Guantanamo must be housed in a military facility and not a federal prison. “The president has given his word, this administration has given its word. The law requires that no Guantanamo detainees be placed in the Thomson prison. Period.”
Durbin said such approval is usually routine. However, Wolf was not convinced by Durbin’s arguments and refused to approve the transfer of funds needed to buy the prison.
Durbin said he went directly to Obama and asked him to intervene after he felt that Wolf was stonewalling the plan, and the Department of Justice signed off on the sale without Wolf’s approval. “It reached the point we couldn’t convince him. There was nothing we could say,” Durbin said today. “This first time we put this letter in front of this congressman was over a year ago -- over a year ago. We’ve been waiting for this. We finally reached the point where we said, ‘We’ve got to seize the moment.’”
Wolf said Obama and Durbin are doing an end-run around longstanding procedures. “President Obama’s unprecedented directive to Attorney General [Eric] Holder to circumvent Congress to purchase Thomson prison is deeply troubling,” Wolf said in a written statement. “It directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire.” Wolf reiterated his fears that the sale is part of a larger plan to close Guantanamo and transfer the detainees to a facility it America.
But the sale seems to be a done deal. Quinn said today that the checks are already in the bank. “Under the rules, the federal government cannot write a check more than $100 million. So in Rockford today, was deposited a check for $99 million and one for $66 million from the federal government to the state of Illinois.”
The facility will need upgrades to meet federal standards, and Durbin and Quinn said the sale would also result in some temporary construction jobs. The money for construction has yet to be appropriated by Congress.
Thomson Mayor Jerry “Duke” Hebeler said he hopes there are no more holdups. “We’ll wait and see if anything else happens, I hope not.”
Quinn said some of the money from the sale would go toward paying off bonds used to build the facility. He said has his administration still has to calculate how much would go to pay down borrowing. However, the governor said that the rest of the money should be spent on unpaid bills. “I have to interact with the General Assembly on this when they come together in late November [for the fall veto session],” Quinn said. He said that the overdue payments to vendors, schools and providers should take priority over any other areas of spending. “We owe this money right now to good people and businesses who provided services to the state of Illinois.”