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Despite 'Gitmo' impasse, Illinois' empty Thomson prison still for sale

St. Louis Beacon

Friday, Mar 18, 2011

WASHINGTON - Nearly a year ago, the inmates at the state-owned Thomson Correctional Facility in northwestern Illinois were transferred elsewhere in anticipation that the federal government would buy the underused prison.

But the original reason for that purchase -- to convert Thomson to a maximum-security prison for detainees from Guantanamo Bay -- has been blocked by congressional opposition to transferring any Gitmo prisoners to the United States.

Sen. Dick Durbin says he is optimistic that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is close to finalizing a deal to buy the Thomson prison from Illinois.

And the fallback option of converting Thomson to a federal prison without any Gitmo detainees -- a plan supported by the cash-strapped state of Illinois, which needs the estimated $170 million that Washington would pay for the prison -- has been caught in the midst of the ongoing debate over cutting the federal budget.

"It's kind of in limbo because we want to make Thomson a federal prison, but congressional appropriators also want to make sure that no Gitmo detainees end up there," said Rich Carter, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., who represents the congressional district that includes Thomson.

Despite those complications -- as well as federal delays in submitting a bid for Thomson -- U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says he is optimistic that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is close to finalizing a deal to buy Thomson from Illinois. He also believes that Congress eventually will appropriate the money to purchase and convert the prison for prisoners other than the Gitmo detainees.

"It is my understanding that both sides have made significant progress and that an agreement is imminent" to sell Thomson, Durbin wrote in a recent letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. A Durbin spokeswoman told the Beacon on Wednesday that "we're hoping to have a path forward on purchasing the facility shortly."

The Obama administration's 2011 budget request included $237 million to buy Thomson and upgrade it to a maximum-security prison, and his request for the 2012 fiscal year includes an additional $67 million for "second-year activation costs for Thomson and its 1,600 cells," according to Durbin's letter to Holder.

But Congress has yet to approve its 2011 budget, which is the subject of intense debate about how deeply to cut it. And the debate over next year's budget level promises to be as acrimonious as the current spending debate.

In addition to bipartisan support from the Illinois congressional delegations, Durbin said there is also strong local backing because a reopened prison would create more than 1,100 jobs. "Our federal prisons are overcrowded, and if we can get a good price for the Thomson prison -- and I think we can -- it would be a good investment for the federal government, instead of building a new prison," Durbin told the Beacon in an interview last month. "It would also be some money for the state of Illinois, and we sure need it."

But signing a deal with the Bureau of Prisons won't mean much if Congress doesn't come up with the money to buy Thomson. And U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., is among the leaders of congressional efforts to bar the transfer of any Gitmo detainees to the U.S. permanently. In January, Kirk and U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., introduced a bill to block using any federal funds to move any current Gitmo detainees or any future foreign detainees into the United States.

Kirk charged that Obama's administration tried "to insert a last-minute provision into the Defense Authorization bill [in December] giving the administration power to transfer terrorists to the heartland" -- an effort that failed. But Kirk said, "We realized the fight to protect Illinois from hosting terrorists is not over."

Schock, of Peoria, said the U.S. "has a multi-million dollar, state-of-the art facility, including court rooms, in Guantanamo Bay, and that should be where enemy combatants captured on the battlefield are held, tried and brought to justice."

With little choice given the congressional opposition, Obama issued an executive order on March 7 that authorized the resumption of military trials for Gitmo detainees after a two-year suspension. That was a result of a congressional amendment, approved in December, that blocked moving those trials to the United States.

Irked by Obama's unilateral action, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., announced new legislation this week that would permanently block funding for the creation or renovation of any facility in the continental United States to house Gitmo detainees.

Among the Republican sponsors of that bill is Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-East Moline, whose congressional district extends nearly to Thomson prison. In a statement Wednesday to the Beacon, Schilling said he wants to ban all Gitmo detainees from the U.S. permanently, but said he "would support the plan to use the Thomson Correctional Center as a working prison as long as it does not house detainees from Gitmo or any other enemy combatants."

Durbin, who would like to close Gitmo, says that may now be a dead issue. "At this point, I know the political reality," he told the Beacon last month. "I support closing Guantanamo. But the political reality is that we cannot get that through Congress."

Durbin added: "The president has come to understand that, and I have, too. I'm not going to waste any more time fighting that battle."

While that battle may have been lost, Durbin still hopes that a deal will be struck soon for the U.S. to buy Thomson and convert it to a federal prison. A spokeswoman for Durbin, Christina Mulka, told the Beacon on Wednesday that buying Thomson "is a top priority [for Durbin] and one that the Obama administration shares.

"We expect to be able to move forward with Thomson as a federal max[imum security] prison only (which actually provides more local jobs) as soon as the federal budget negotiations are completed."

By: Robert Koenig

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