A public hearing Tuesday on the conversion of an Illinois prison into a detention center for Guantanamo detainees could prove contentious, as supporters and opponents face off over the controversial White House plan.
The prison at Thomson, Illinois, about 150 miles west of Chicago, is the site the federal government has proposed buying from the state and upgrading beyond super-max security standards, before moving detainees from the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba and other federal inmates. The White House says it will create up to 3,800 jobs and pump close to $1 billion into the area's economy over a four-year period.
But opponents argue the move will make the western Illinois region a magnet for terrorists.
"To bring these terrorists over here, is, it's a slap in their face," said Beverly Perlson, of Aurora, IL., whose son, John, served four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne.
Perlson, who founded the group "The Band of Mothers," to support the men and women serving in the military, said her son fought to keep terrorists off U.S. soil and away from his family.
"They're capturing these brutal butchers off the battlefield and they're locking them up and now we're going to bring them over here, provide lawyers for them, that your tax dollars and mine are going to pay for," she said.
"This is absolutely ludicrous. It's wrong. They should remain at Gitmo," Perlson said, referring to Guantanamo.
But many of those who live closest to the prison in Thomson, a small, Mississippi River town of about 500 people, feel differently.
"It's a big deal. We refer to it often as the economic development opportunity of a life-time," said Russ Simpson, interim executive director of the Tri-County Economic Development Alliance in the area of Northwest Illinois that includes Thomson.
Simpson, Perlson and other regional leaders are among those who will be testifying at Tuesday's public hearing, held by a state legislative commission.
"Three thousand jobs is a lot of jobs," Simpson said, citing the area's 11 percent unemployment rate. "If it's half of that, it's more jobs than northwest Illinois has experienced for a long time," he added.
The 1,600 cell maximum-security facility at Thomson, built just 8 years ago for $145 million, sits nearly empty today because Illinois' legislature and governors have never fully funded its operations. It currently houses fewer than 200 minimum security inmates.
But some experts say small towns rarely see long term economic gains from having prisons.
"It does not end up being a benefit for the community," said Terry Besser, professor of sociology at Iowa State University. "In fact, overall, it tends to be a loss."
Besser has studied the economic impact prisons have on the small towns that often compete vigorously to win them.
"The thing is, the jobs come there but the people don't necessarily. So people are commuting to these positions," from towns and cities up to an hour or an hour and a half away, she said.
"Local residents don't necessarily have the skills to work in the prison and so they hire people from outside, by and large," Besser said.
The Obama administration's analysis of the prison's economic impact includes a huge seven county region in Illinois and Iowa, with towns and cities an hour and a half away from Thomson.
It forecasts 1,000 to 1,500 military personnel being assigned to the prison, but most would not bring families until the second year the prison is open, and few locals would be hired for the military portion of the prison where the Guantanamo detainees would be held.
The federal Bureau of prisons anticipates needing close to 900 employees. Most initially would come from outside of the Thomson area, but officials predict eventually half of the new hires would be from the western Illinois and eastern Iowa area.
It would then take the federal government six to eight months to upgrade the Thomson prison for the detainees, if the move is approved and funded by Congress, making it unlikely that any Guantanamo detainees would be moved to the facility before 2011.