By Lynn Sweet
Sun-Times Washingon Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON–A nearly empty state prison in northwestern Illinois has emerged as a possible site to house detainees transferred from the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, the Obama White House told the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday.
Gov. Quinn and Obama discussed the federal purchase of the Thomson Correctional Center when Quinn was in Washington on Nov. 4 and visited the White House. The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will outline proposals for the future of the prison at press conferences in Rock Island, Chicago and Rockford on Sunday.
Durbin’s office has been quarterbacking the potential sale of the prison through a series of meetings between the White House and Quinn, who is looking to generate revenues for the cash-strapped state.
The Thomson complex is the Illinois Department of Corrections newest maximum security prison. Built in 2001for $145 million, the 1,600-bed facility has zero inmates. The facility’s minimum security operation has about 200 prisoners.
A White House source told the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday that no decisions have been made and Thomson is one of “multiple options” being considered to house Guantanamo detainees. If the prison is acquired by the federal government, it would be run under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which would then establish a supermax facility, leasing a portion to the Defense Department for a “limited number” of Guantamo detainees.
Obama, who may miss his Jan. 22 deadline of closing the controversial prison, established a Guantanamo Review Task Force, run by the Justice and Defense Departments by executive order on his first day in office. The task force has been evaluating maximum security facilities nationwide, with Thomson one possibility.
Quinn’s office on Saturday only that “senior officials” from the Obama administration will be visiting Thomson to determine if “virtually vacant, state-of-the-art facility can be utilized by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“Over-crowding in federal prisons is a serious issue and one of the reasons why the Bureau of Prisons is interested in viewing Thomson Correctional Center. As always, Gov. Quinn’s first priority is public safety and security, an issue that will definitely be part of any future discussion with federal prison authorities regarding Thomson. In addition, the Quinn administration is interested in utilizing Thomson to create” new jobs and “generate greater economic development for Illinois.”
Quinn’s statement side-stepped the matter of if Guantanamo detainees would be housed there, making no mention in the statement. The state could realize at least $200 million from a deal.
Durbin and Quinn are expected on Sunday to discuss details about the ongoing evaluations by the Justice and Defense teams. They will be joined at press conferences at the Quad City International Airport, Midway Airport and Rockford International Airport by Michael Randle, Department of Corrections director and Jonathon Monken, Illinois State police director.
Unlike other locations where the housing of terrorist suspects touched off a political storm, Obama’s home state of Illinois may provide a friendlier reception. Durbin is on board and Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) is open bringing detainees to Illinois.
The mayor of the small (population 550) agricultural community has raised no objection to the potential use of Thomson to house Guantanamo detainees–which has been an open possibility for months. A maximum security federal prison in Downstate Marion houses Ali al-Marri, a convicted al-Qaida conspirator without controversy.
The Quad City Times, which covers northwestern Illinois, reported on Friday that the federal government may buy Thomson. Quinn, during a campaign stop on Thursday night in the Quad Cities said he would have an announcement about the sale of the eight-year-old facility “within the next few days,” the paper reported.
The paper said Thomson Mayor Jerry Hebeler has not objected to suspected terrorists being imprisoned in his town–far away from any target rich population center.
On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that five men accused of the 9-11 attacks now being held in Guantanamo would be sent to New York to stand trial, just several blocks away from the World Trade Center twin towers, destroyed in the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Security is expected to be at an all-time high.
The closing of Guantanamo has touched off a political storm for Obama, who made shutting the prison in Cuba a signature pledge of his presidential campaign. Obama promised on his first day in office to close the prison in one year, but it has proved more difficult than Obama or his advisors ever contemplated, especially since other nations have balked at accepting detainees.
Holder on Friday, discussing the Guantanamo closure said “I’m not sure we are going to be able to complete that process by Jan. 22.”