The Obama administration will announce Tuesday that the president has directed the federal government to purchase the Thomson Correctional Center in order to move a “limited number” of foreign detainees at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the nearly vacant prison in northwest Illinois, an administration official said Monday night.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., will be briefed on the matter today, the official said.
Christina Mulka, a spokesperson for Durbin, also said late Monday they had been told the acquisition would move forward and the announcement would be made Tuesday.
In addition to the detainees, several hundred federal prisoners will be moved to the Thomson facility, which was built in 2001 to house state prisoners but has instead stood nearly empty as local officials have vainly tried to fill it.
The administration’s plan will bring hundreds of federal jobs to the area.
“Well, good,” Thomson Village Board President Jerry Hebeler said Monday night. “It’s been there for eight years.”
President Barack Obama said last January that he planned to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay facility within a year. The administration, with the backing of several military officials, has said it has become a symbol for terrorists.
“Closing the detention center at Guantanamo is essential to protecting our national security and helping our troops by removing a deadly recruiting tool from the hands of al-Qaida,” said the administration official, who requested anonymity because the decision had not been formally announced. “(Tuesday’s) announcement is an important step forward as we work to achieve our national security objectives.”
Finding a place for the more than 200 detainees still being held has been difficult. Even Democrats in Congress balked at the idea of moving the detainees to U.S. soil earlier this year.
After news broke last month that Thomson was being considered, Republicans in Congress criticized the decision, saying it would make northwest Illinois a target for terrorism. However, Democrats in the state, particularly Durbin and Quinn, as well as many people in the local community, have backed the idea as a potential boon to the area’s struggling economy.
The move could create up to 3,800 jobs over four years and inject $1 billion into the regional economy, the administration estimates.
Many townspeople whose friends and relatives hoped to land jobs as guards, or who had invested in businesses, also have had high hopes the prison would open, even though some of the same people have expressed reservations about having the detainees in their midst.
Word of the acquisition spread abruptly late Monday.
Quinn’s office had released his schedule for today shortly before 8 p.m. Monday, saying he would be in Chicago for the day. A revised version was released 2 1/2 hours later, saying he would be in Washington “to be briefed on the acquisition of Thomson Correctional Center.”
Not all elected officials were notified as quickly. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, the Republican who represents the Thomson area, said Monday night the congressman had not received any official confirmation from the White House regarding an announcement.
Manzullo has been critical of the proposal, saying there are numerous questions regarding safety and legal issues about the transfer that the Obama administration hasn’t yet answered.
“We haven’t been informed of the meeting,” said Manzullo spokesman Rich Carter. “Maybe they’ll call us (Tuesday) morning.”
There still are several tasks to be completed before the prison can be sold. It must be appraised and the state and federal government must settle on a price.
The prison, if the deal goes through, will be run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, according to the administration’s plan. The agency is expected to bring 1,600 to 2,000 prisoners to the Thomson facility.
Authorities will also spend some time bulking up security.
The federal Bureau of Prisons will add razor wire between the existing double fences and beef up the existing fence detection system. The Defense Department, which would lease a portion of the facility, would also erect another perimeter fence around the 146-acre complex, according to plans.
The administration has said it would exceed security at the country’s only “Supermax” prison in Colorado.
It’s not clear precisely how many foreign detainees would be brought to Thomson, though Durbin has put the number at less than 100.
It’s not clear when the first would arrive, either. At a briefing earlier this month, administration officials told members of the state’s congressional delegation it is reviewing the cases of each of the detainees, a process that would be done next month.
The decision to move forward with the purchase of Thomson comes just days after a leaked memo said the administration would make the move. It also comes a week before a state-sponsored hearing had been scheduled to be held in Sterling, Ill. The hearing is slated for Dec. 22.
(Kurt Erickson contributed to this article)