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Thomson Correctional Center

Wing A of Housing Unit 1 in the 1,600-inmate maximum-security prison in Thomson. (Kevin E. Schmidt/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is turning up the pressure on a Virginia congressman in an effort to get the vacant Thomson (Ill.) Correctional Center sold to the federal government, and he accused Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation of covering for the lawmaker.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Durbin blamed Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, for standing in the way of a reprogramming of federal funds for purchase of the facility northeast of the Quad-Cities.

“Mr. Wolf’s rejection of this reprogramming and his continued opposition to this project has denied my home state hundreds of important jobs for more than 14 months,” Durbin said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

The letter asks the administration to once again request that already appropriated funds be reprogrammed so the Federal Bureau of Prisons can purchase the facility.

Officials estimate that opening the 10-year-old prison as a federal facility would create 1,100 jobs in the area of northwest Illinois and eastern Iowa.

The state and federal government have agreed to a $165 million price, according to officials. However, efforts to appropriate additional funds for the purchase have failed to clear Congress. So the option being pursued now is reprogramming existing funds.

That, however, requires lawmakers with oversight over Justice Department funds to sign off. Durbin’s office says that Sen. Barbara Milkuski, D-Maryland, has done that, but Wolf hasn’t.

In a letter to the Justice Department last year, Wolf cited concerns about diverting funding from other accounts. But Republicans and Democrats say that he’s really worried about the possibility foreign detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison will be sent to Illinois.

Initially, the Obama administration wanted to use Thomson as a repository for the detainees so it could shut down Guantanamo Bay. That, however, failed amid bipartisan opposition in Congress.

Guantanamo Bay has stayed open as a result, and the administration has said it now only wants Thomson to relieve overcrowding in the federal prison system.

Durbin’s letter also seeks to put some pressure on Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation. The senator has called on Republicans to pressure Wolf to relent, and in Wednesday he accused GOP lawmakers of seeking to “take the pressure off Mr. Wolf and to suggest the Obama administration is somehow to blame for the delay.“

The reference is to a request that Reps. Bobby Schilling, Aaron Schock and Don Manzullo, all Illinois Republicans, made a month ago, when they sent a letter to the administration asking for an “unequivocal” statement that Guantanamo Bay detainees wouldn’t be sent to Thomson. After the letter, Holder pledged to a Senate hearing no detainees would be sent to Thomson.

Schilling, who is in the midst of a tough re-election fight, drew criticism from Democrats who say that he was playing politics with the issue.

Andie Pivarunas, a Schilling spokesperson, responded to Durbin’s letter Wednesday. “We are grateful for Sen. Durbin rejoining this effort and are hopeful he will join the effort to achieve a more affordable sale price,” she said.

Schilling, along with nine other Republicans, recently asked Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to accept less money for the prison. Schilling said he was seeking alternative ways to get the prison open. Pivarunas said Wednesday, “we are hopeful the State of Illinois will accept a dollar amount more affordable to the federal government.”

Wolf’s office couldn’t be reached for comment. His representatives previously have failed to answer emailed questions about the issue.

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