Prison holds promise for job-strapped town

By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

CHICAGO -- On the edge of a cornfield 150 miles from Chicago lies a prison, all but vacant, that could become the new Guantanamo.

In the Midwestern autumn, the rural surroundings could hardly seem more different from Cuba, or the fight against terrorism more remote, but sources call the Thomson Correctional Center the leading candidate to house dozens of suspected foreign fighters on the U.S. mainland.

The Obama administration, anxious to deliver on a campaign promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has told Illinois officials that a firm decision about acquiring the state facility at Thomson will be made in four to six weeks.

While other sites are under consideration, one source in Illinois politics called the competition "ours to lose," adding: "Thomson is at the top of the list and something would have to knock it off."

Yet a battle in Congress remains over the administration's plans, with opponents arguing that terrorism suspects should not be brought to American soil, even to a prison upgraded to "supermax" status and run by the Defense Department.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and six Republican colleagues urged President Obama this week "to stop any plan to transfer Al Qaeda terrorists to our state."

"If your administration brings Al Qaeda terrorists to Illinois," wrote Kirk, a candidate for Obama's former U.S. Senate seat, "our state and the Chicago metropolitan area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization."

Prominent Democrats in Illinois are lining up behind the proposal, arguing that security would be formidable and jobs plentiful if the largely unused Thomson prison were acquired and operated by the federal government. Backers include Gov. Patrick Quinn (D) and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin.

Durbin called the prison, built eight years ago for $145 million, "vastly underutilized" in a county with 10.5 percent unemployment. "With up to 3,000 jobs on the line, this could be the biggest jobs creator in northwest Illinois since I've held elected office," he said.

The state has never used more than a small fraction of the 1,600 beds, and currently, the maximum-security portion of the prison is fallow, with only minimum-security sections in use.

The sequence of acquiring a U.S. prison, improving it and importing inmates remains under discussion. One possibility would be for the federal government to purchase the facility and begin construction while seeking support in Congress to move the inmates.

In Thomson, whose surprise turn in the spotlight stemmed from an offer made last month to Quinn by village President Jerry "Duke" Hebeler, the prospect of hosting Guantanamo prisoners for detention and perhaps trial is seen as positive, with a few jitters.

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