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Now that it's fully activated, the federal prison in Thomson, Ill. is looking to bulk up its workforce.

But some officials worry holding career fairs and offering sign-on bonuses is not enough to attract 200 new employees to work in the small town. And it's even harder, according to a letter from the warden, to entice workers to live locally, whether in Thomson or surrounding communities. 

"As our staffing levels continue to grow, the demand for homes and other amenities also increase," Warden Donald Hudson wrote in a letter to community members. "Affordable and desirable housing along with good quality schools and daycare centers determine where the Bureau of Prisons' staff reside. They need apartments, rental houses, starter homes and larger homes for their expanding families." 

The state of Illinois sold the Thomson prison to the federal government in 2012, and for years, it's operated far below capacity. The prison started slowly ramping up hiring in 2015.

Vicky Trager, president of the village of Thomson, said the new hires at the prison — Thomson's largest employer — have boosted sales for some businesses in the community. 

"The gas stations and convenience stores have seen the greatest effect from daily sales, and our local cafes and restaurants have also benefited," she said. "There are a few (prison) staff members living in Thomson; some, but not all, with families. However, there hasn't been a large difference."

In January, the prison was officially activated, said Nicole McDowell, public information officer.

Now operating with about 400 staff members, McDowell said the prison is authorized to hire 200 more, including correctional officers and healthcare workers. The Bureau of Prisons has designated Thomson a "hard to fill" prison.

As a result, it's offering a 10% incentive for correctional workers, meaning by the end of the first year, workers could receive a bonus of about $4,000.

But the warden worries the prison will continue to struggle to hire and retain workers, when for some, "commuting a long distance is necessary." Some workers live as far as Dubuque, Clinton or the Quad-Cities, he said.  

Trager said a lack of affordable, workforce housing and amenities in Thomson makes it hard to keep workers around. 

"The majority of available housing for sale or rent in Thomson are older, single-family residences," she said. "I believe there is a need for modern, market-rate, multi-unit housing to serve those who prefer the amenities and lack of maintenance ...  Larger cities are able to offer the amenities limited or not available in Thomson such as entertainment, retail, medical, educational and housing." 

Now, the warden is asking residents, developers and neighboring communities to help. 

"Therefore, I humbly request your assistance in advocating for more housing development," the warden wrote. "Please do what you can to create conversations among community leadership and residential developers. I fear that without noticeable development, the lack of housing may become a determining factor against relocating to this area." 

McDowell said the prison is encouraging surrounding communities to build new housing developments and daycare centers. 

A lack of development in Thomson has been a longstanding problem. The institution was first built nearly 20 years ago as a state prison but didn't open because of a lack of operating funds.

Stakeholders in the community hope the warden's call to action will be the start of a new chapter in Thomson's development.

"I believe what's needed is for developers to take Warden Hudson's letter to heart," Trager said. "For years I have been told, "I'm waiting for the prison to open before I invest". The warden's letter is his response: AUSP Thomson is open, it is hiring, and now is the time." 

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