WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has directed the federal government to buy the near-empty state prison in rural Thomson, Ill., to house federal inmates and up to 100 detainees from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said late Monday.
The official announcement is planned for today and follows weeks of consideration of the Thomson Correctional Center as a federal site to house the detainees.
The decision is part of a complicated plan for shutting down the controversial Guantanamo detention center, a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment around the world as a result of detainee abuses there during the Bush administration.
Obama ordered the closure of the detention center as one of his first acts after inauguration in January.
But closing it has proven a cumbersome matter, largely because of the difficulty of finding other places to hold the terror suspects.
Illinois and local officials suggested the near-vacant Thomson prison, located near the Mississippi River and the Iowa border. Construction on the prison started in the 1990s and was completed in 2001.
The U.S. is already in the process of sending detainees to their home countries and to third countries on what aides call a “rolling basis” throughout this year. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced prosecutions in federal courts and military commissions that will begin soon.
The Thomson prison could house 35 to 90 of the Guantanamo detainees, said one source familiar with the discussions.
Toward that end, Obama has directed that the federal government proceed with the acquisition of the Thomson prison center, an administration official said late Monday. The official said the prison would be used to house federal inmates as well as “a limited number of detainees” from Guantanamo Bay.
“Closing the detention center at Guantanamo is essential to protecting our national security and helping our troops by removing a deadly recruiting tool from the hands of al-Qaida,” the official said.