President Barack Obama has directed the federal government to buy the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois, to house Guantanamo Bay terrorist detainees. News of the arrangement leaked out last week in a confidential memo obtained by the web site Big Government, and it became official on Tuesday.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn today issued a joint statement in which they praised the decision by the Obama administration to proceed with the acquisition of a state-of-the-art correctional facility in Thomson.
“Thomson Correctional Center – a high security prison – has been sitting empty for eight years,” they said. “The Obama Administration has put forward a plan to make it the safest prison in America, and we are pleased that they have made this decision. This move will have a tremendously positive impact on the local economy – creating more than 3,000 jobs and injecting more than $1 billion into the local economy. This is an opportunity to dramatically reduce unemployment, create thousands of good-paying jobs and breathe new economic life into this part of downstate Illinois.”
In a letter to Governor Quinn, sent by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the federal government has signaled its intention to buy and operate the prison.
The facility will serve two purposes. It will house federal inmates since the Bureau of Prisons has a pressing need for more bed space due to crowded conditions at other prisons, and it will house a limited number of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, according to the letter to Quinn. However, the letter stated that the two groups will not be able to interact at the Thomson Center.
Clinton, Gates, and others stated in the letter: “We write to inform you that the President has directed, with our unanimous support, that the Federal Government proceed with the acquisition of the facility in Thomson. Not only will this help address the urgent overcrowding problem at our nation’s federal prisons, but it will also help achieve our goal of closing the detention center at Guantanamo in a timely, secure, and lawful manner.”
The Thomson Center has received mostly support from its neighbors: More than 30 villages, towns, cities, counties, chambers of commerce, and other community and business organizations have sent letters and expressed support for the plan. On the other hand, US Rep. Mark Kirk, a suburban Chicago Republican, had encouraged elected officials to write the president to oppose a plan to bring terrorism suspects to Illinois. Kirk has said that bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to Illinois would make the prison and the state magnets for terrorist attacks.
However, the letter to Quinn addresses security concerns that have been raised about transferring Guantanamo detainees to the Thomson facility: “The security of the facility and the surrounding region is our paramount concern,” it stated. “The facility was built in 2001 to maximum security specifications, and after acquisition it will be enhanced to exceed perimeter security standards at the nation’s only ‘supermax’ prison in Florence, Colorado, where there has never been an escape or external attack.”
Federal departments and agencies, including the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Defense will work closely with state and local law enforcement authorities to identify and decrease any risks, according to the letter.
In addition, the letter stated, “The President has no intention of releasing any detainees in the United States. Current law effectively bars the release of the Guantanamo detainees on US soil, and the federal government has broad authority under current law to detain individuals during removal proceedings and pending the execution of final removal orders.”
In response to the announcement today that the Obama administration would be transferring detainees from Guantanamo to the Thomson Correctional Center, Center for Constitutional Rights Executive Director Vincent Warren issued the following statement: “The vast majority of detainees remaining at Guantanamo will never be charged with anything. Yet the president has made clear that he believes he can continue to hold these men, most of whom have already been in Guantanamo for eight years and should never have been detained in the first place, for as long as he wants without any trial whatsoever.”
Warren also said that many of the detainees have nowhere to go because they are from countries that routinely engage in torture and other human rights abuses. “Will they now be subject to inhuman conditions of solitary confinement in a maximum security facility despite the fact that they will never be charged with anything and have been approved for release? For them Thomson, Illinois, may be worse than Guantanamo. While the fear-mongering over bringing any of the men to the US is opportunistic and entirely political, we cannot support this latest move merely to shut down the symbol of Guantanamo without dismantling the injustice of Guantanamo.”
In the memo leaked last week, the memo stated that the government should acquire and activate the Thomson center “as expeditiously as possible” as a US penitentiary to “alleviate the Bureau of Prisons’ shortage of maximum security cell space and could be used for other appropriate purposes” such as housing Guantanamo detainees.
Talking about the leaked memo, White House Press Office spokesperson Amy Brundage quoted an administration official Monday as saying “This was a draft, pre-decisional document that lawyers at various agencies were drafting in preparation for a potential future announcement about where to house Guantanamo detainees. Drafts of official documents are often prepared for any and all possibilities, regardless of whether a decision has been made about the policy or if the document will be used.”
Closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been a priority for President Obama. He has said he wants terrorism suspects transferred to American soil so that they can be tried for their suspected crimes.
The Thomson Correctional Center was built in 2001, with plans for it to improve the local economy. However, state budget problems have kept the 1,600-cell prison from fully opening. It currently houses about 200 minimum-security inmates. Thomson has a population of 450 and is 150 miles west of Chicago.