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Gitmo detainee transfer proposal draws mixed reactions
Illinois prison could be inmates' new home, but GOP vows to fight it
Associated Press

This 2004 file photo shows a guard tower overlooking a fence and coils of wire surrounding the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson.


Associated Press

A cell house at the Thomson Correctional Center seen from one of the guard towers.


Associated Press

The Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois is largely vacant.


Associated Press file

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Published: 11/14/2009 1:00 PM | Updated: 11/15/2009 3:06 PM

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The Gitmo Illinois proposal

Q. Why bring Gitmo detainees to Illinois?

A. President Barack Obama is attempting to close the detainment facility in Cuba. Moving the detainees into the federal prison system is part of the process.

Q. Is this a done deal?

A. No. It will likely require approval by Congress and at least the 'OK' from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

Q. How many detainees would come to the Thomson prison?

A. Not clear. The Obama administration will only say a "limited number." U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin says it will be "fewer than 100."

Q. Why did they pick the Thomson prison?

A. Since being built in 2001, the $140 million prison has sat virtually empty because of budget problems and political roadblocks to moving prisoners in from other parts of the state. The state can use the money from selling the facility, the local population is in need of jobs and the remote location makes it an easier site to protect.

Q. Is the Thomson prison secure?

A. It is a maximum-security prison with eight compartmentalized, 200-cell units. On the 146-acre site, the prison is protected by a dual-sided electrical stun fence, 312 cameras and armed towers. The Obama administration would also plan to upgrade security, making it one of the highest security prisons in the country. Detainees would be kept apart from the general population.

Q. What do Thomson leaders say?

A. The village president of Thomson, a town of about 500, is in favor of the plan. The local state representative and state senator are also supporting the move. The local congressman, Republican Don Manzullo, is in opposition.

CHICAGO - Gov. Pat Quinn says selling a prison in rural northwest Illinois is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create jobs in the struggling area.

But plans to sell the prison that would then be used to house some detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba is creating controversy because of safety concerns.

Federal officials are expected at Thomson Correctional Center on Monday to inspect the prison.

Quinn says Illinois is being considered along with at least two other cities in Colorado and Montana.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin traveled around the state with Quinn on Sunday to sell the idea of a prison deal.

The Democrat says he hopes Illinois has an edge because President Barack Obama knows about the economic climate in the area around prison.

Under the plan, the federal government would buy the 1,600-cell, maximum-security Thomson prison, filling it with regular inmates and setting aside a section for Gitmo detainees to help close the controversial facility in Cuba.

"This move will have a significant positive impact on the local economy," Durbin said. "We should not let the unsupported and misplaced fears of a few stand in the way of this historic economic boost to our region."

In quick reaction to the plan Saturday, the entire seven-member delegation of Illinois House Republicans signed on to a letter penned by U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk of Highland Park opposing the plan. Kirk is running for Senate, bidding for President Obama's old seat.

"If your Administration brings al-Qaida terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization," the letter reads. "As home to America's tallest building, we should not invite al-Qaida to make Illinois its number one target."

Raising the specter of terrorist attacks drew quick rebukes from supporters of the plan, who view it as a viable option to both close Gitmo and provide thousands of jobs in western Illinois.

State Sen. Mike Jacobs of East Moline, whose district covers Thomson along the Mississippi River, said Kirk's letter is "one of the silliest things I have ever heard anybody say."

"We house some of the most violent offenders in the country in Illinois," he said. "They will be stuck behind those walls."

Jacobs, a Democrat, then pointed to nearby gun manufacturers and a training complex for a private security company hired by the U.S. military.

"If they (the terrorists) want to come over here, they better be careful," he said. "People here have guns."

State Rep. Mike Boland, whose state House district also covers Thomson, called the accusations political propaganda.

"In my eyes, Thomson is probably as safe a place as you can get," said the East Moline Democrat, who is running for lieutenant governor.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston said Saturday that "Republicans like Mark Kirk are simply pandering to irrational fears and insulting U.S. law enforcement professionals."

After evaluating a number of state and federal sites, the Obama administration has centered on Thomson as a "leading option" for housing a "limited number" of detainees, a White House official told the Daily Herald.

Durbin said the prison would hold "fewer than 100" Gitmo detainees in all.

If the plan was approved - and that would take final approval from Congress - the federal government would take extra security precautions at Thomson that would surpass the toughest "supermax" prisons in the country, the administration official said.

Opposition lined up quickly, promising a fight ahead.

Congress likely would have to approve the move as part of a broader proposal submitted by Obama to close Gitmo. Republicans have made clear they will fight it.

U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo of Rockford, whose district covers the town of Thomson, said Saturday that moving detainees to the Illinois prison could make the region a target for future terrorist activity.

The Republican suggested the suspected terrorists housed at Thomson could one day be released into our communities.

Durbin countered such criticism by saying that the federal prison system currently handles about 350 inmates tied to domestic or international terrorism, with 35 of them in Illinois prisons, including a convicted al-Qaida sleeper agent stationed in downstate Marion.

Proponents of moving Gitmo detainees to Thomson are highlighting the jobs that would be created from finally getting the prison fully staffed after sitting mostly vacant since opening in 2001.

The $140 million prison was built with the intention of housing inmates from much older maximum security prisons in the state. However, budget problems and the always-difficult politics of moving prison jobs has undermined that effort. Only about 144 prisoners are at the facility today.

Boland says the region is desperate for jobs.

"I have tried just about everything to get that prison up and used," he said. "I know the area around there is really economically hurting."

An economic review of the proposal by the Obama administration says it will spur between 2,340 and 3,250 ongoing jobs as well as $1 billion of economic activity over the first four years.

Manzullo said Saturday he supports using the prison for federal inmates, just not ones from Gitmo. He says the economic benefit for western Illinois would be the same without Gitmo prisoners in the facility.

Economics are also evidently on the governor's mind.

Quinn and Obama talked in person about the proposal earlier this month. In a follow-up letter from Quinn to the White House, the Democratic governor said, "As plans are being formulated to potentially move federal prisoners and to locate a limited number of detainees in the United States, we stand ready to provide you with any assistance as this process moves forward."

Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, has been key in the negotiations. "This is an opportunity to dramatically reduce unemployment, create thousands of good-paying jobs and breathe new economic life in this part of downstate Illinois," he said.

Yet, it remains unclear where most of the Democrats in Illinois' House delegation will fall. Their support would be crucial to passing a measure through the Democrat-led House.

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Batavia, whose 14th district reaches into western Illinois, said Saturday he was "in the process of collecting all the facts and gathering the opinions" of residents before making up his mind.

Foster did point out there is support for the move. "It appears that at least some of those who are most directly affected are in favor of the proposal, primarily due to the high security of the facility and the potential for job creation," the freshman lawmaker said.

U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean of Barrington issued a statement Saturday saying she currently opposes moving Gitmo detainees to Illinois "without substantial assurances regarding potential security threats."

No further explanation of what types of assurances she wants was available.

Meanwhile, the village president of the town of Thomson, with a population of about 500, said he welcomes the addition of Gitmo detainees so the prison can start hiring.

"We want it open," said Jerry Hebeler.

Jacobs said he isn't sure the proposal will ever even come to fruition. There has been talk about filling the prison for years.

"I'm going to be really cautiously optimistic," Jacobs said. "This isn't our first rodeo."

• Daily Herald Politics and Projects Editor Joseph Ryan contributed to this report.