Illinois the next Gitmo?
TRIBUNE EXCLUSIVE: Near-empty prison a leading contender to house terror suspects
When Illinois built the $145 Thomson Correctional Center the complex was promised to bring jobs and an economic boost to the area around Thomson, Illinois. That never happened and the prison remains largely vacant. (Tribune file photo / February 22, 2002)
As they work to shutter the controversial detention center, federal officials are talking to Illinois officials about buying the Thomson Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison about 150 miles west of Chicago.
With Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and other key officials warm to the idea of a federal purchase of the prison, federal officials have stepped up investigations into turning Thomson into a super-maximum facility with a unit for former Guantanamo detainees.
"This has emerged as a leading option," an Obama administration official said Friday night, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
The official wouldn't say how many of the detainees could transfer to Illinois, describing it only as a "limited number." The official also wouldn't say whether the administration envisions Thomson as the sole domestic prison for the former Guantanamo detainees.
Officials are contemplating the details -- including how they would persuade Congress to change a law that bars Guantanamo detainees from the U.S. unless they are here for trial.
If President Barack Obama can manage that, the Illinois prison could figure prominently in the complicated matrix for closing the infamous prison. Guantanamo has become a worldwide symbol of unpopular U.S. anti-terror and detention policies, and ordering its closure was one of Obama's first acts in office.
The shutdown has proven easier said than done, however, mainly because of the difficulty of finding other places to incarcerate the more than 200 people currently detained there. The Obama administration has appealed to allies around the world to house some of them, a request complicated by significant political opposition to accepting any of the detainees on American soil.
But officials in a handful of towns around the country have expressed interest in hosting such a federal prison, a prospect some remote areas welcome as a means of economic development at a time of hardship.
The Mississippi River town of Thomson, on the Illinois border with Iowa, has suffered more than most. In 2001, the state completed construction of the $145 million maximum-security institution to house the most dangerous inmates. A state budget crisis has left the prison practically unused for eight years, though. The prison has 1,600 cells yet is holding only 144 inmates.
Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler was among the first to publicly raise the idea of housing Guantanamo detainees there, telling an ABC reporter in May that, as prison management goes, "they can't be any worse than any murderer."
In a recent letter to Gov. Quinn, Hebeler made a more general case for selling the institution to the federal government, which already operates a prison in the downstate Illinois town of Marion.
"If the Illinois Department of Corrections has no need for this facility, perhaps the federal government would be interested in locating a prison similar to the one in Marion," Hebeler wrote in an open letter published in local newspapers.
The plea found an audience in the state capital. Quinn has made $1 billion in cuts to his state budget in recent months, carrying out the task in part by sending layoff notices to Illinois prison employees.
Quinn recently discussed the prison with Obama, a fellow Illinois Democrat.
The prison is surrounded by a 12-foot exterior fence and 15-foot interior fence, which includes an electric stun fence, Quinn pointed out in a follow-up letter to Obama's secretary of defense and attorney general this week.
"I understand that you are still considering other options," Quinn wrote in the letter, obtained by the Tribune's Washington Bureau, "but the federal Bureau of Prisons would be hard-pressed to find a similar facility with such extensive safety and security measures already in place anywhere in America."
Now the federal Bureau of Prisons is looking into purchasing the site and running it as a federal institution. The bureau would also lease a portion of the prison to the Defense Department to house "a limited number of Guantanamo detainees," the official said.
The early glimmer of support from Quinn and Hebeler could help Obama navigate the obstacles ahead, but only if it is the precursor to a more sweeping local response.
Congressional opposition has been a looming obstacle for Obama as he contemplates the Guantanamo closure because current law says the detainees can only be moved to the U.S. for "purposes of prosecution."
A strong show of support from residents and officials -- and particularly from the Illinois delegation in Congress -- could make the plan viable.
"Barring some sort of plan, the law won't change," one congressional staffer said Friday, hours before the administration official confirmed the plan in an interview with the Tribune's Washington Bureau.
Widespread resistance in and around Thomson would likely have the opposite effect, and give fuel to national Republicans who oppose closing Guantanamo as a matter of policy.
Julian E. Barnes of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.