Guantanamo Prisoners May Be Illinois-Bound

Federal prison officials visited the Thomson Correctional Facility on Monday as Democrats, led by Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn, push a plan to house detainees from Guantanamo Bay there. Some Republican lawmakers say, however, the Chicago area would become a terrorist target if the plan went ahead.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The effort to find a home for Guantanamo Bay detainees is taking center stage today in a tiny town in northwestern Illinois. Federal and local officials visited the Thomson Correctional Facility, it's about 150 miles west of Chicago.

NPR's Cheryl Corley is in Thomson. Hi, Cheryl.

CHERYL CORLEY: Hi. How are you?

SIEGEL: Fine. I understand that there's an effort to get the federal government to consider buying or using the Thomson Correctional Center. Tell us more about the plan.

CORLEY: Well, the prison here is a large, sprawling entity. It was built about eight years ago as a maximum security prison, has 1,600 cells, but it's barely used. There's a minimum security section here and that's what the state has been using. It has about 200 beds. On average there are about 144 people here a day, prisoners here a day. And it's so unused, that's why officials here have really pushed for the federal government to take some action.

They're also pushing them to take action because this area has just been very hard hit economically. Unemployment is well over 10 percent. And the prison was supposed to be a boom for the community, but the state hasn't been able to afford to keep it open.

SIEGEL: Well, do residents of Thomson seem to welcome the prospect of possibly having the Guantanamo detainees there?

CORLEY: Well, it's really mixed, Robert. But for the most part I think so. I talked with a group of women who live around the area here and they say that this facility has just been gathering dust for several years and it's really time to put it to use. They're really not concerned with who is in the prison. They just want it to bring in jobs, which is estimated to be about 3,000, and really just to help this economy.

There are others here who are concerned about safety, though. And two others I talked to who believe that the state should be operating this facility and not the federal government. I talked to one resident who had been hired by the state to work here as a prison guard, but was reassigned to take another job at another prison about 100 miles away. And he's afraid that if the federal government actually takes over here, that state employees won't be able to return and get jobs here.

SIEGEL: Now, in Chicago some critics of this whole idea held a news conference. What is their concern?

CORLEY: Well, there are several critics - mostly Republican congressmen and Republican officials who are running for office. And they're basically concerned about terrorism. They believe that Illinois, for example, with the country's tallest building - now called the Willis Tower - could be at risk. They're asking that the federal government conduct a study to see what harm could potentially come to that structure and to others.

And Congressman Don Manzullo, who represents this area, was actually up in Chicago. He was at the end of the tour that just finished here with a number of officials. He says it's just not worth having the federal government operate the facility with Guantanamo Bay detainees here.

Here's what he had to say.

Representative DON MANZULLO (Republican, Illinois): We cannot jeopardize the safety and security of the people in exchange of a promise for a job.

SIEGEL: As you said, Cheryl, Congressman Manzullo is a Republican. Democratic Illinois Senator Dick Durbin supports this plan. What did he say today?

CORLEY: Well, he said that it's really just time to move forward with this. That, you know, the state really needs these types of jobs. That this will be a very safe federal facility and it's time to move forward.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): If we reach the point that our fear of retaliation stops us from prosecuting terrorists, incarcerating them, holding them accountable, then we will have lost our way as a nation.

SIEGEL: Senator Dick Durbin.

Cheryl, do we know when a decision might be made about whether the Guantanamo detainees will go to Thomson?

CORLEY: Well, right now the officials here are saying this is the first step in a process. They are also considering a couple of other sites in addition to the one here in Thomson.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you. That's NPR's Cheryl Corley speaking to us from Thomson, Illinois.

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