Ill. Town Looks To Detainees To Solve Joblessness

Officials in Thomson, Ill., say their economically hard-pressed area is ready and willing to house Guantanamo Bay detainees. They would be housed in a nearly vacant prison that would be converted to a federal facility. Area residents are divided over the plan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Were going to go, next, to the little town of Thompson, Illinois, where the economy is hurting and where officials say they are ready and willing to accept detainees from Guantanamo Bay in a nearly vacant prison. Some current residents of Thompson are divided over the possibility of their new neighbors.

NPRs Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: The Thompson correctional facility sits nearly vacant on 146 acres. Its buildings are surrounded by fences topped with razor wire. The prison, designed as a maximum security facility, was built eight years ago with 1,600 cells, but it houses fewer than 200 prisoners. Thompson Village president, Jerry Hebeler,�was among the first to suggest that it become a federal prison.

Mr. JERRY HEBELER�(President, Thompson Village): We need to be safe, we need to give people hope, we need to give people opportunities to keep their families here.

CORLEY: Under the proposal, the Thompson facility would house more than 1,000 federal inmates and about 100 detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba that the Obama administration has promised to close. After a tour of the Thompson prison, Harley Lappin, the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said it was more than adequate.

Mr. HARLEY LAPPIN (Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons): This is a fine, fine facility of a high security nature, well constructed, well designed and provides the security enhancements and capabilities that we would require and expect for the type of inmates were going to house here and certainly the detainees that would be housed here as well.

CORLEY: Not everyone likes this plan, though. A group of Republican congressman, including Representative Don Manzullo, who represents the Thompson area, held a press conference in Chicago denouncing the plan. They said putting suspected terrorists in Illinois poses a risk. On Main Street outside Caseys General Store in Thompson, Jeff Couley(ph), who lives in a neighboring town, is also concerned.

Mr. JEFF COULEY: With me, Im not worried about whos in there, Im just worried about what its going to bring here. Whats going to follow them?

CORLEY: In another Chicago press conference, Democratic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin said critics were engaged in fear mongering. In Thompson, Republican State Representative Jim Sacia says while he respects the opinions of his fellow Republicans, the Thompson prison needs to be put to use.

State Representative JIM SACIA (Republican, Illinois, 89th district): And to know that it has sat here costing the taxpayers over $1 million a year to flush the toilets, to keep the computers on, and to keep it heated has just been just a catastrophe.

CORLEY: At Thompsons Sunshine Restaurant, many area residents agreed it was time to shake the mothballs off the towns prison. And Eileen Guffey(ph), eating lunch with friends, wasnt worried at all about the possibility of Guantanamo detainees being housed nearby.

Ms. EILEEN GUFFEY: Theres never been anyone thats escaped from there. And certainly security would be very high, and they would be very recognizable.

CORLEY: Guffey says shes just hoping area residents who trained for state jobs at the prison would be able to return. State officials say a federal take over of Thompson could create as many as 3,000 jobs in all. But Illinois is only one site under consideration by federal authorities.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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