Gitmo in heartland?
Town sees jobs, Republicans see security risk in plan to move detainees to Illinois prison
When Illinois built the $145 Thomson Correctional Center the complex was promised to bring jobs and an economic boost to the area around Thomson, Illinois. That never happened and the prison remains largely vacant. (Tribune file photo / February 22, 2002)
Christi Parsons, Katherine Skiba and Joel Hood
Chicago Tribune reporters
November 15, 2009
THOMSON, Ill. -- President Barack Obama's idea of moving suspected terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay detention center to a northwest Illinois prison may face its biggest opposition hundreds of miles away in Washington.
On Saturday, residents and leaders in tiny Thomson, quickly warmed to the prospect of finally putting the long-languishing penitentiary to greater use, relishing the promise of jobs in a down economy.
"It would help the businesses here, and God knows we could use that," said Kay Lawton, 59, eating breakfast Saturday at a restaurant a few hundred yards from the Thomson Correctional Center. "It doesn't matter to me who they bring here."
But for those detainees to arrive from Cuba, the White House first has to persuade Congress to buy into the notion of holding suspected terrorists on U.S. soil. Hours after the story was reported by the Tribune, the administration began a low-key sales job of the idea it floated Friday, releasing estimates that envisioned an economic boon for the region.
Illinois Republicans immediately assailed the idea of putting terrorism suspects at Thomson. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, circulated a letter among Illinois' congressional delegation urging the White House to not proceed.
"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," Kirk, a five-term congressman, wrote in the letter to Obama.
Democrats largely ceded the debate to Republicans for much of Saturday. Gov. Pat Quinn plans a three-city tour Sunday to talk about Thomson. In a statement, Quinn framed the issue as showing off the prison to the federal government to help with "overcrowding" -- not mentioning the idea of holding terrorism suspects in Illinois.
By late afternoon, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin defended the idea, citing statistics that 350 inmates convicted of terrorism are locked up in federal prisons, including 35 in Illinois.
"To those who say U.S. prisons cannot safely hold high-risk terror suspects, I say look at the facts," he said.
The battle lines started to form in the wake of the White House's revelation Friday that the largely vacant prison near the Mississippi River is a leading candidate to house a "limited number" of terrorism suspects. On Saturday, Durbin put the number at "fewer than 100."
For months, the administration has faced a knot of problems as it works to close the detention center on the naval base in Cuba. Thomson, a maximum-security prison roughly 150 miles west of Chicago, could be turned into a super-maximum facility with a unit for some of the Guantanamo detainees.
Unclear is how many would be transferred to Illinois and whether Thomson would be the sole domestic prison for that purpose. Several other sites have been under review by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Defense, and local officials around the country have volunteered their communities as host towns.
And so it is that Thomson could figure prominently on a political issue of global scope. Guantanamo has emerged as an international symbol of U.S. anti-terror and detention policies; Obama said its name was "a rallying cry" for al-Qaida as he ordered its closure shortly after taking office.
But the shutdown has proved hard to accomplish, primarily because there's no simple way to relocate the more than 200 detainees now housed there. Foreign allies are open to accepting some, but Obama has had to ask for their help while admitting the U.S. might not be able to do the same.
As distasteful as some find the idea of incarcerating terrorists on U.S. soil, prisons are an inviting idea in some remote areas suffering economic hardship. Thomson, with a population of less than 600, is a good example.
On the north end of town is the sprawling prison, a series of drab, low-slung stone buildings that opened to great fanfare in 2001. The $145 million prison complex promised to bring hundreds of jobs. But that never happened. Since the construction wrapped up eight years ago, the only portion of the prison that has opened is the minimum-security wing. The prison's state-of-the-art maximum-security wing remains vacant, a casualty of the state's shifting correctional priorities.
The town was abuzz Saturday with news that the prison is being looked at by the Obama administration.
"People have come here, they've bought homes, and when the prison never opened they simply had to leave," said Rosie Rojas, a waitress at the Sunrise restaurant. "Everybody is fighting for jobs, and it seems like that prison has the potential to bring a lot of them."
Brad Spencer, a volunteer firefighter and resident of nearby Savanna, predicted opposition would surface.
"It don't bother me none, but this is a small town and a lot of people have a conservative outlook on something like this," said Spencer as he worked the back room of Schafer Fisheries Inc. in nearby Fulton.
Thomson Village President Jerry "Duke" Hebeler said Saturday that state officials last month pitched to him the idea of bringing detainees to the prison. He welcomes the economic development potential.
"A murderer is a murderer no matter where he's from," Hebeler said. "That's the way I look at it."
The prison would generate 2,300 to 3,200 jobs in the area and pump $790 million to $1 billion into the local economy in its first four years, according to a White House estimate generated at the request of Quinn and Durbin.
Republican U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo, whose district includes Thomson, acknowledged the "extraordinary unemployment" in the area but said he opposed the transfer of Guantanamo Bay prisoners there.
"The issue is: 'Are you going to exchange the promise of jobs for national security?' National security trumps everything." he said.
Manzullo, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was concerned that "al-Qaida would follow al-Qaida" to northwest Illinois if Thomson took Guantanamo detainees. All seven House Republicans from Illinois signed Kirk's protest letter to Obama.
Among Illinois Democrats, U.S. Reps. Bill Foster, who represents a far west suburban district, and Phil Hare, whose district is adjacent to Manzullo's, said they needed more information.
Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean of Barrington said she remains "opposed to transferring Guantanamo detainees to Illinois, or anywhere in the United States, without substantial assurances regarding potential security threats."
The White House is working from the understanding that it will need to sort things out with Congress if the Thomson idea is to proceed.
In the White House view, federal law bars the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for any purpose other than prosecution. But administration officials said they have been told by congressional leaders that legislators would consider lifting the restriction if the administration presented a final plan to close Guantanamo that included the new detention location.
Political considerations also will play out in Illinois. Quinn, who will offer his views Sunday, is running for election next year. Republican foes showed they won't be shy about making Thomson a campaign issue.
Noting Quinn's effort to release nonviolent inmates early as a budget-cutting move, former state GOP Chairman Andy McKenna said, "It appears Gov. Quinn's only plan to cut spending and create jobs is free prisoners and bring terrorists to Illinois."
Link to Photo Gallery of Thomson Correctional Center:
Christi Parsons and Katherine Skiba reported from Washington. Joel Hood reported from Thomson. Julian E. Barnes of the Washington Bureau and Tribune reporter Rick Pearson contributed.
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