WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has directed the federal
government to buy the near-empty state prison in rural Thomson, Ill., to house
federal inmates and up to 100 detainees from the U.S. detention center at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said late Monday.
The official announcement is planned for Tuesday and follows
weeks of consideration of the Thomson Correctional Center as a federal site to
house the detainees.
The decision is part of a complicated plan for shutting down
the controversial Guantanamo detention center, a lightning rod for
anti-American sentiment around the world as a result of detainee abuses there
during the Bush administration.
Obama ordered the shutdown of the detention center as one of
his first acts after inauguration in January.
But closing it has proven a cumbersome matter, largely
because of the difficulty of finding other places to hold the terror suspects.
Illinois and local officials suggested the near-vacant
Thomson prison, located near the Mississippi River and the Iowa border.
Construction on the prison started in the 1990s and was completed in 2001.
The U.S. is already in the process of sending detainees to
their home countries and to third countries on what aides call a “rolling
basis” throughout this year. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently
announced prosecutions in federal courts and military commissions that will
The Thomson prison could house 35 to 90 of the Guantanamo
detainees, said one source familiar with the discussions.
Toward that end, Obama has directed that the federal
government proceed with the acquisition of the Thomson prison center, an
administration official said late Monday. The official said the prison would be
used to house federal inmates as well as “a limited number of
detainees” from Guantanamo Bay.
“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,” the
administration official said.
The announcement on Tuesday “is an important step
forward as we work to achieve our national security objectives,” the
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Illinois Gov. Patrick
Quinn, a Democrat, are scheduled to be in Washington on Tuesday afternoon to be
briefed on the decision by administration officials at the White House. Durbin
and Quinn have been major promoters of the project.
To operate the prison, administration officials have
estimated some 3,800 jobs would be created in and around Thomson.
At present, there are 210 detainees in custody in Guantanamo
Bay. About 90 of them have been cleared for transfer back to their native
countries or sent to other countries. Five of the detainees are being turned
over to the Department of Justice for federal trial in New York.
The plan for Thomson has been under consideration for weeks,
as first reported by the Tribune Washington Bureau. Over the weekend,
administration officials said they were closing in on the Thomson prison as a
leading candidate for Guantanamo inmates, but that they hadn’t made a final
But the official said late Monday that the president has now
directed his agencies to acquire the prison and activate it as a federal
penitentiary. In previous discussions, aides said the federal government would
operate the Thomson site as a prison for its highest-risk inmates, and also
turn over a portion to the Department of Defense to take transferees from the
U.S. military prison in Cuba.
The administration has also considered the possibility of
operating a military tribunal at or near the prison, where the government would
try combatants charged with acts of terrorism. Officials did not comment on
that idea Monday.
The Thomson site could end up being the sole location for
what the administration calls “long-term detainees,” those suspects
who will remain in custody but who are not likely to stand trial.
Illinois state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, the Democratic co-chair
of a state panel that will hold a hearing on the issue, said word from the
White House is “consistent with everything that I’ve been led to
“All the signs have pointed toward the Obama administration
selecting Thomson as the site,” Schoenberg said.
Schoenberg noted that multiple communities have weighed in
with resolutions supporting Thomson’s effort to become a federal prison.
“For those who live that job-starved portion of the
state, this is undoubtedly very welcome news,” Schoenberg said. “Even
the most conservative estimates of the economic impact that this would have are
A hearing on the Thomson prison is set for Dec. 22 in nearby
Sterling, Ill., before a bipartisan legislative panel, the Commission on
Government Forecasting and Accountability. The commission will make an advisory
recommendation, which the Quinn administration can accept or reject, on whether
to close the prison, which has never been used to its capacity.
The Quinn administration has said that lawmakers do not need
to pass legislation for the sale to take place. After the advisory
recommendation from the panel, the Quinn administration can sell the prison
under the state’s surplus property act.
But Republicans have questioned whether the prison can be
declared surplus or sold without further action, and they have asked Illinois
Attorney Gen. Lisa Madigan for an opinion on the matter. A Madigan spokeswoman
said the office has yet to respond.
Another member of the state legislative panel, State Sen.
Dave Syverson, a Republican, said late Monday that he has many questions about
the deal and “just because the federal government says they want to buy it
does not mean, as a state, we want to sell it.”
A purchase price has not yet been fully negotiated,
according to a source knowledgeable about the discussions.
“At a minimum, we’ve got to get $80 million to pay off
the mortgage and at least $200 million to pay for a replacement facility,”
said Syverson, who has not taken a position on the sale. “If we’re not
talking something north of $300 million, we would be cutting ourselves
short,” Syverson said.
State Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican running for governor and
a member of the legislative panel, said the president’s early commitment for
Thomson “just seems wrong.”
“The president understands that we’ve got rules in this
state. We’ve got to go through a hearing process,” Brady said. “My
personal opinion is that international terrorists ought to continue to be
housed in Cuba.”