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The twisted tale of Thomson prison begins in 1998
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

The Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois is largely vacant.


Associated Press

A guard tower overlooking a fence and coils of wire surrounding the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson.


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Published: 11/22/2009 12:01 AM | Updated: 11/23/2009 7:33 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- A healthy dose of political irony is unfolding in rural northwestern Illinois over Thomson prison and the push to put detainees from Guantanamo Bay in its near-vacant confines.

If not for the Sept. 11 attacks, the Thomson prison likely would have opened as planned earlier this decade and never been available to house alleged terrorist detainees.

The story begins in 1998, when then-Gov. Jim Edgar announced a $98-million, maximum-security prison would be built in the area, specifically on the soon-to-be-shuttered Savanna Army Depot that straddles the Carroll and Jo Daviess County line along the Mississippi River.

The massive depot had been home to decades of ordnance testing and large portions were contaminated. The site was available because a federal base closing commission had pulled the plug on the depot and the final 450 jobs would leave by 2000. The U.S. Department of Defense, which owns the depot, was ready to hand the land - which included the base commander's 5,500-square-foot brick home overlooking the Mississippi River - over to the state for free for the prison and its warden. Edgar said the prison would employ 465 and spark additional jobs in the nearby communities.

Within days, however, environmentalists mounted a campaign to stop the prison. Turns out the depot grounds are home to some of Illinois' last pristine sand prairies. In the ensuing weeks, the opposition grew. Both candidates for governor at the time - Republican George Ryan and Democrat Glenn Poshard - said the prison should be moved elsewhere.

Finally Edgar acquiesced and the prison project was moved a few miles south near Thomson. A power company had planned to build a nuclear power plant on the site but never did and donated the land to the state for the prison, to which the governor quipped: "I figure you can probably put a prison easier someplace than you can put a nuclear facility."

And so ended the first controversial chapter of the Thomson prison.

Subsequently, under Ryan's administration, construction of the prison continued and the price tag grew to more than $120 million. It was finished in 2001, but that year terrorist attacks sank the national economy and Illinois' budget quickly plummeted into the red.

Suddenly there was no money to staff the prison, one of the state's most expensive construction projects ever. As a result, the massive, state-of-the-art maximum security prison sat empty, though taxpayers have spent millions over the years in upkeep to make sure the toilets still flush so the place would be ready should it ever be opened. In recent years, a small number of minimum-security state inmates have been moved to a wing of the prison.

On occasion, governors have proposed closing one of the state's other aging maximum-security prisons and moving the inmates to the modern Thomson facility. However, those pushes were blocked by lawmakers, largely because the communities that house the old prisons would be economically devastated.

And that's where things stood until this past week when Gov. Pat Quinn let on that he'd been talking to federal officials about selling the prison to them so they could use it to house terrorist detainees once Guantanamo Bay in Cuba closes.