Some Guantanamo Detainees May Be Illinois-Bound

The small town of Thomson, Ill., will in the future be home to some of the most high-profile detainees in the world. The White House announced Tuesday that the Thomson Correctional Center will house some terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today, President Obama announced plans for the federal government to buy a nearly empty prison in Thomson, Illinois. The idea is to move detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Thomson. This afternoon, Illinois senator Dick Durbin, a democrat, applauded the decision.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We see this as a great opportunity to not only serve our country but to provide meaningful jobs for a lot of people desperate for work.

SIEGEL: When Thomson, Illinois, was first proposed as a site for the Guantanamo detainees, the initial reaction from Illinois politicians tended to split down party lines: Democrats backed the plan, Republican's opposed it - well, not entirely. For the past seven years Jim Sacia has been state rep for the 89th district of Illinois, which is just adjacent to Thomson. He is a Republican. He is a supporter of the plan and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

State Representative JIM SACIA (Republican, 89th District, Illinois): Thank you very much Robert.

SIEGEL: First tell us about the prison in Thomson and why it's almost empty.

State Rep. SACIA: I certainly will. The citizens of Thomson, some 10 years ago, agreed to have a maximum facility state institution built there. And it was completed approximately eight years ago. And from the time it was completed in 2002, there has not been adequate funding to open it. And accordingly, the numerous people that prepared for its opening built motels, gas stations, automobile dealerships, et cetera, literally had their dreams broken, many are bankrupt. And we have attempted for the past seven years to get the facility open to no avail. If those prisoners are going to come to the United States of America on our mainland, bring them to Thomson. We'll gladly house him.

SIEGEL: But just to clarify, the state of Illinois borrowed enough to build the prison but then didn't have the funds to actually operate it.

State Rep. SACIA: That's exactly what happened, sir.

SIEGEL: Well, will there really be local prison jobs for people either in Thomson or in your district, which I guess, is about - comes up to about two miles of the town?

State Rep. SACIA: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: Or will those jobs in fact go to people with experience in the federal bureau of prisons who'll actually get the jobs?

State Rep. SACIA: Well, I think you're going to get a little bit of both. According to the briefing I received on November 15th, there's unquestionably going to be 200 prison guards brought in initially from around the country, people willing to relocate here. What we were told is somewhere between three and five hundred people from a local area would have an opportunity to be trained as prison guards on a federal level.

But as a retired law enforcement officer myself, I am well aware that people throughout the United States can apply for these positions. Certainly I see local jobs, local economic development, but people throughout the country are going to have those opportunities for these federal law enforcement positions.

SIEGEL: If I understand you, there will be a new prison guard slot, one for almost every Guantanamo detainee who is going to be sent there.

State Rep. SACIA: I don't question that for a minute, sir. But here is what we need to understand. There are eight wings to the Thomson prison, each capable of handling 200 prisoners without double bunking. One wing will be designated solely to get more prisoners. I'm sure that they will probably have one on one military. We were told military police on those people. That wing will be totally segregated and they will be handled totally differently than the remainder of the prison population. And I think that's very important for people to understand. There is going to be no co-mingling.

SIEGEL: That is Illinois state representative and retired FBI agent, yes?

State Rep. SACIA: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: Jim Sacia, represents the 89th district in Illinois, just adjacent to the town of Thomson, which is where the Guantanamo detainees are going to be sent. Thank you very much for talking with us.

State Rep. SACIA: Thank you, sir.

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Future Detainee Prison Will Go Beyond 'Supermax'

Thomson Correctional Center, Thomson, Ill. i i

The 1,600-cell Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., was built in 2001 as a state prison with the potential to house maximum-security inmates. It now houses about 200 minimum-security inmates. Rex Arbogast/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Rex Arbogast/AP
Thomson Correctional Center, Thomson, Ill.

The 1,600-cell Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., was built in 2001 as a state prison with the potential to house maximum-security inmates. It now houses about 200 minimum-security inmates.

Rex Arbogast/AP

The White House said Tuesday that it will transfer a limited number of terrorism suspects from the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba to a prison in rural Illinois, prompting swift criticism from Republicans worried about increased security risks on U.S. soil.

Officials say federal inmates and no more than 100 detainees would be housed at the maximum-security Thomson Correctional Center, located about 150 miles west of Chicago. The Obama administration says the prison could be used for detainees awaiting military trial or for those who can't be released under any circumstances — but only if Congress agrees to change the law.

The government will acquire the underutilized Illinois prison and transform it into a facility that will "exceed perimeter security standards at the nation's only 'supermax' prison in Florence, Colo.," according to a letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.

Those departments "will work closely with state and local law enforcement authorities to identify and mitigate any risks" at the prison, the letter stated. It also made clear that President Obama "has no intention of releasing any detainees in the United States."

Speaking after a briefing with White House officials on Tuesday, Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin and Quinn cast the decision to accept Guantanamo detainees as an act of patriotism — one with the added bonus of job creation.

"Time and time again, the people of Illinois have risen to the task," Durbin said. "We believe this is in service of our country."

Planned Detention Site

Locator map pointing out the Thomson Correctional Center, in Thomson, Ill.

White House National Security Adviser James Jones said shifting detainees to Thomson would make the United States more secure and removes "a recruiting tool that Guantanamo Bay has come to symbolize" for terror organizations.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky condemned the administration's plan, saying the American people "already have rejected bringing terrorists to U.S. soil." He accused the White House of failing to explain how transferring some of the detainees to the U.S. would be safer than keeping them at the U.S. Navy-run facility in Cuba.

Shortly after taking office, Obama signed an executive order directing the closure of the Guantanamo Bay military prison. However, the task of figuring out what to do with about 215 terrorist suspects there has proven both legally and politically difficult. The White House says detainees can be held safely and securely on U.S. soil, but some Illinois officials say the risk is too great.

Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, who is seeking Obama's former U.S. Senate seat, opposes the move. Kirk has lobbied other officials to contact the White House in opposition to using the facility.

State Rep. Jim Sacia says he isn't thrilled about the prospect of detainees in Illinois, but he disagrees with the safety concerns of his GOP colleagues and says the focus should be on the potential economic benefits.

"I have no doubt in my mind, having sat through several very significant briefings, that keeping the Gitmo prisoners segregated from the remainder of the 1,600 maximum-security prisoners will be handled professionally by the military," he said.

Illinois Democrats have enthusiastically embraced the idea of turning the prison over to federal officials as a way to create jobs in a state with roughly 11 percent unemployment.

Sen. Roland Burris said transferring Guantanamo detainees will be "a great economic benefit to the state by creating over 3,000 well-paying jobs and bringing in valuable federal dollars to fund local facility operations." He added that he had "full confidence that the facility will hold these terrorism suspects safely and securely."

Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler got the news late Monday that his town of 450 residents had been chosen as the site to house detainees from Guantanamo. "It'll be good for the village and the surrounding area, especially with all the jobs that have been lost here," he said.

The Illinois Department of Corrections is ready to transfer out the 200 minimum-security prisoners now housed at the Thomson Correctional Center in anticipation of handing it over to the federal government, IDOC spokeswoman Januari Smith said.

Thomson was built in 2001 as a state prison with the potential to house maximum security inmates. Local officials hoped it would improve the economy, providing jobs to a hard-hit community. However, state budget problems have kept the 1,600-cell prison from ever fully opening.

The facility was one of several sites evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for their suitability to house detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Other prisons — including those in Marion, Ill.; Hardin, Mont.; and Florence, Colo. — also expressed interest in taking the Guantanamo detainees to keep prison employees working.

In a Dec. 11 letter to Senate Republicans that was obtained by The Associated Press, Napolitano promised that former Guantanamo detainees' stay on U.S. soil would be temporary.

She wrote that detainees would be treated for immigration purposes as though they were stopped at a U.S. border crossing post. If a detainee were brought to the U.S. for trial, that person could be tried, convicted, serve prison time or be acquitted, Napolitano said.

Congress passed a measure earlier this year that would bar terrorism suspects from U.S. soil unless they were going to be prosecuted. Democrats plan to lift that restriction if the White House can show it has a secure plan for housing the inmates.

From NPR's Scott Neuman and Don Gonyea, WNIJ's Mike Moen and wire reports

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