CHICAGO – The Obama administration may buy a near-empty prison in rural northwestern Illinois to house detainees from Guantanamo Bay along with federal inmates, a White House official said Saturday.
The maximum-security Thomson Correctional Facility, about 150 miles west of Chicago, was one of several evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and it emerged as a leading option to house the detainees, the official told the Associated Press.
President Barack Obama wants alleged terrorism suspects from the controversial military-run detention center in Cuba to be transferred to U.S. soil so they can be prosecuted for their suspected crimes.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has been hinting at a possible new use for Thomson, and he issued a statement saying he would hold a news conference today to outline those plans.
Thomson was built by the state in 2001 with 1,600 cells, but budget problems prevented it from fully opening, and it now houses about 200 minimum-security inmates.
It is unclear how many Guantanamo detainees – many held without charges since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan – would be transferred to Illinois or when. Obama initially planned to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by Jan. 22, but the administration is no longer expected to meet that deadline.
If the Federal Bureau of Prisons buys the facility, it would be run primarily as a federal prison, but a portion would be leased to the Defense Department to house a limited number of Guantanamo detainees, the White House official said. Perimeter security at the site would be increased to surpass that at the nation’s only supermax prison, in Florence, Colo.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-highest-ranking Democrat, said in a statement Saturday he would support the plan. He said the prison would house fewer than 100 Guantanamo detainees and would have a “significant positive impact on the local economy” by generating more than 3,000 jobs.
Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler said the move would generate desperately needed revenue for the town of about 500 residents near the Mississippi River.
“It’s been sitting there for eight to nine years and our town is like a ghost town,” Hebeler said. “Everybody moved or got different jobs.”
Some lawmakers opposed the idea of terrorism suspects being brought to Illinois.
U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Northbrook Republican running for Obama’s old Senate seat, circulated a letter among elected officials asking them to write to Obama opposing the plan, saying bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the state would make it a target for terrorist attacks.