Prison holds promise for job-strapped town

By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009; A02

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.

'The skin of our teeth'

"I go back and forth," real estate agent Jeannine Mills said. "I would love to see prisoners here. That's why it was built. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with having terrorists imprisoned here. I would like to get more informed, and reassured."

Donna Opheim, manager of the Station diner on the town's three-block business strip, echoes Durbin's argument about jobs.

"We've just been hanging on by the skin of our teeth," Opheim said. "A couple of congressmen are fighting it. Let them come up here and see what it's like."

Thomson, a shrinking town of fewer than 600 not far from Ronald Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon, bills itself on a faded wooden sign as the Watermelon Capital of the World. The prison, surrounded by electrified fence, is just outside town, separated from the Mississippi River by a cornfield and a strip of woods.

Faded expectations

For the past eight years, civic life has been defined by hopes that the prison would open at capacity and frustration when it didn't. The few residents who expressed fears of housing Guantanamo inmates seemed outnumbered.

"If this prison doesn't open, we'll be dying," said Tom Patel, 58, who bought the Executive Inn three years ago, expecting the prison to be in full swing.

Picking up dinner at Dusty's Pizza, retiree Ron VenHuizen said he hopes the prison will provide jobs for his two grandsons, Marines returning from Afghanistan. "The area needs a big boost," he said. He said that he and his wife, Marva, worry about an attack on nearby nuclear power plants or Lock and Dam 13 on the Mississippi. But if it's a risk, VenHuizen said, it's a reasonable one.

"There's danger everywhere," he said. "I could walk here in the street and get run over."

Pam Brown, Chamber of Commerce executive director in neighboring Savanna, said she has heard nothing that the area cannot handle. She recalled when bombs were manufactured at the Savanna Army Depot, now shuttered.

"Having a bomb go through your home town is something we grew used to. I'm not sure which would have posed the greatest danger -- terrorists or bombs," Brown said, adding that the prison was built to house dangerous criminals. "They don't send good people there, period. It's people you wouldn't want as a neighbor."

Federal authorities toured the prison Monday and discussed the prospects with local officials and business leaders. Locals were told that no friends or relatives would be permitted to visit prisoners and the detainees would not be released into the community, said Julie Hansen, president of the Thomson Chamber of Commerce.

"My first thought was, 'Oh my goodness, that's scary,' but I learned a lot of things at the meeting," Hansen said. "Terrorists already exist around the country and are being housed in federal prisons all over. They talked about previous wars where there were Nazis brought here. This isn't a first-time situation."

But confidence that the Obama administration will choose the town and the pieces will fall into place is decidedly muted. For the hard-luck town by the cornfields, there are other ways, too, that this isn't a first-time situation.

"It's been years and years of disappointment," Hansen said. "The comment I hear repeatedly is, 'I'll believe it when I see it.' "

Lydersen reported from Thomson, Ill.

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