The Obama administration plans to operate the Thomson (Ill.) Correctional Center as a federal prison even if it’s not successful at getting approval to move foreign detainees there from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said Monday.
The administration hasn’t backed off its plan to move the detainees there and still is working to get congressional approval to allow it. But overcrowding in the federal prisons is so severe that the government needs the state facility.
“The purchase of the Thomson prison is designed to alleviate that” overcrowding, Tom Gavin, a spokesman at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, said Monday.
Even if the Guantanamo Bay prisoners aren’t moved to northwest Illinois, “the federal government would still utilize Thomson as a federal prison,” he said.
The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget, which was unveiled Monday, includes $237 million for the purchase, renovation and operation of the Thomson facility.
That includes $170 million for the facility’s purchase and upgrade and another $67 million for its operation.
President Barack Obama last December ordered the government to buy the prison, which is about 50 miles northeast of the Quad-Cities, to house a limited number of foreign detainees from Guantanamo Bay, as well as 1,600 federal prison inmates.
The plan, the administration says, would create up to 3,800 jobs in the region. Most of the direct jobs, however, would come from the Defense Department’s lease of the facility to hold Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Between 1,000 and 1,500 military, contractor and civilian workers are projected to work in that part of the facility.
The Thomson prison was built in 2001 for $140 million. It has sat mostly vacant since then, as state officials have vainly tried to find money to open it.
Backers of the administration’s plan had said they would seek funding in a spring supplemental spending bill before Congress. Now, however, the administration is going through normal budgeting channels to get money for purchase of the Thomson facility.
Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the idea is to take a staged approach: first to open the facility and upgrade security and after that make the necessary changes in the law to bring Guantanamo Bay prisoners there.
Currently, Guantanamo Bay detainees are allowed on U.S. soil only for the purposes of prosecution.
“I think they’re full steam ahead on the first phase, and if that means there is going to be the possibility of having (federal) prisoners there before Guantanamo prisoners, that is now a serious possibility,” he said.
He added he’s still confident Guantanamo Bay detainees will be moved there.
State and federal officials who have spoken about the Thomson deal have emphasized prison overcrowding the past couple of days.
Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Sunday the money being proposed to purchase Thomson “would be warranted even in the absence of any shift of prisoners from Guantanamo because the Federal Bureau of Prisons needs additional bed space.”
Meanwhile, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said on a last-minute campaign stop in the Quad-Cities on Monday that federal officials have stressed overcrowding problems recently.
“It looks like now from talking to our federal friends in the Bureau of Prisons that, no matter what, they need a federal prison right now in western Illinois,” he said. “If we can make this transaction go quickly, and I think we can, we can get this going this year.”
Quinn said he thought the $237 million included in the budget would be adequate for purchase of the Thomson facility.
Before selling the prison, there must first be three appraisals, which form the basis of the state’s asking price.
Last month, a state panel recommended that Thomson be closed.