The long-stagnant Thomson Correctional Center is a “leading contender” to house prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an Obama administration official said Saturday.
The official wouldn’t say how many prisoners might be transferred to the prison, only that it was a “limited number.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said it would be fewer than 100.
Thomson, Ill., is about 50 miles from the Quad-Cities.
The administration has been seeking places at home and abroad to put the prisoners as it seeks to close the controversial facility, but there’s been resistance among lawmakers about taking them into their districts.
The administration official couldn’t say whether Thomson would be the only facility to take Guantanamo Bay prisoners or when a decision might be made. If it happens, however, the federal Bureau of Prisons would purchase the facility, and it would house other federal inmates. The part housing the Guantanamo Bay prisoners would be leased to the Defense Department.
There are 215 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn hinted at a coming announcement about Thomson during a political forum in Rock Island Thursday night.
Saturday, he confirmed that federal officials are eyeing the purchase of the largely unused state prison in Thomson.
In a statement, Quinn said senior officials of the administration will visit the maximum-security lock-up in Carroll County to see if the virtually vacant, state-of-the-art facility can be better utilized by the federal Bureau of Prisons. That visit will be Monday.
Quinn said overcrowding in federal prisons is a serious issue and that is one of the reasons why the Bureau of Prisons officials are interested in viewing Thomson Correction Center.
For Illinois, such a proposal could take a long-dormant facility off its hands while at the same time provide hundreds of jobs in an economically ailing region. It also could help the state, which is facing a massive budget gap.
A preliminary administration analysis of the potential economic impact, which was obtained by the Quad-City Times on Saturday, says the federal acquisition of the facility could mean 2,340 to 3,250 in direct and indirect jobs and an economic impact to the region of $790 million to $1.1 billion over four years. It said the unemployment rate in Carroll County, where the prison is located, could be cut in half.
It also said unemployment in surrounding counties, including Rock Island, and Clinton and Jackson in the Iowa Quad-City region, would decline as well.
The Thomson area has long awaited full utilization of the prison.
Illinois built the 1,600-cell prison in 2001 for a cost of $140 million. It was never fully opened because of state budget problems. About 200 minimum-security inmates are housed there.
However, the idea of housing Guantanamo prisoners is sure to cause controversy. Already, lawmakers have balked at the idea. Only last month, Congress passed a law that said prisoners could be transferred to the United States, but only then for prosecution.
Further congressional action would be needed to move them to Thomson.
Congressional Republicans have been particularly critical of the prospect of bringing the prisoners to the U.S.
U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, a Republican who represents the Thomson area, said Saturday, “The terrorists remaining at Guantanamo Bay are dangerous and brutal killers, many of whom were involved in the attacks on our nation. As a matter of national security and public safety, I have consistently joined with a majority of my colleagues in fighting efforts to bring these terrorists onto our shores, and I adamantly oppose this plan to bring the terrorists to northwestern Illinois, where they could one day be released into our communities.”
Rich Carter, a spokesman, also said the site could become a target. “This could put northwest Illinois, Thomson and the greater area, on the map for al-Qaida,” he said.
Quinn responded to the safety concerns, too.
“As always, Governor Quinn’s first priority is public safety and security, an issue that will definitely be part of any future discussions with federal prison authorities regarding Thomson,” the statement from the governor’s office said.
The administration official, who declined to be identified because a final decision where to put the detainees has not been made, said if Thomson is utilitized, the government would “enhance perimeter security measures to exceed those at the nation’s only Supermax prison facility,” which is in Florence, Colo.
The official noted there’s never been an escape from that facility, and also pointed to a 2009 law that prohibits release of Guantanamo detainees in the U.S.
Durbin, who began talking about bringing the prisoners to the state this spring, said there already are 350 inmates in U.S. prisons convicted of international or domestic terrorism, including 35 in Illinois.
“None of these places have been targeted,” added Joe Shoemaker, a Durbin spokesman.
Durbin said the move could have a dramatic impact on the area economy, “create thousands of good-paying jobs and breathe new economic life into this part of downstate Illinois.”
A handful of communities in the U.S. have shown some willingness to take the prisoners, including Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler, who offered up the facility has a potential location. Administration officials also have considered a prison in Michigan.
Of the 215 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, about 65 are considered viable for prosecution in civil courts or by military commission. As of late September, 78 had been cleared for release by a task force, according to the Associated Press.
More details are expected to become available today. Quinn and Durbin have scheduled a series of news conferences to further discuss the proposal. The fly-around includes an 11 a.m. stop at the Quad-Cities International Airport in Moline and later stops in Chicago and Rockford.
Illinois Department of Corrections chief Michael Randle and Illinois State Police Director Jonathan Monken are accompanying Durbin and the governor.