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Illinois Prison To House Guantanamo Detainees

A guard tower and prison yard remains empty at the Thomson Correctional Center on November 15, 2009 in Thomson, Illinois.
David Green
A guard tower and prison yard remains empty at the Thomson Correctional Center on November 15, 2009 in Thomson, Illinois.

In a key step toward closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison, the White House is planning to acquire a rural prison in Illinois to house detainees on U.S. soil.

The maximum-security Thomson Correctional Center, located about 150 miles southwest of Chicago along the Mississippi River, will hold no more than 100 detainees transferred from Guantanamo, an aide for Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin said.

Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn were expected to announce the news Tuesday afternoon at the White House. With the state's unemployment rate at about 11 percent, Illinois Democrats have enthusiastically embraced the idea of turning the underutilized prison over to federal officials as a way to create jobs.

But Illinois Republicans and others oppose the move, saying it will make their state a target for possible terrorist attacks.

"We cannot jeopardize the safety and security of the people in exchange of a promise for a job," Rep. Don Manzullo said last month as the state's prisons were being evaluated.

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

Shortly after taking office, Obama signed an executive order directing the closure of Guantanamo Bay facility, which he says has become a symbolic recruiting tool for al-Qaida. 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 critics say the risk is too great.

Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler, was asleep when the word came late Monday that his town's prison had been chosen to house Guantanamo detainees.

"It's news to me, but then I'm always the last to know anything," Hebeler said of the news affecting his town of 450 residents. "It'll be good for the village and the surrounding area, especially with all the jobs that have been lost here."

The Thomson Correctional Center was built by Illinois in 2001 as a state prison with the potential to house maximum security inmates. Local officials hoped it would improve the local economy, providing jobs to a hard-hit community. State budget problems, however, have kept the 1,600-cell prison from ever fully opening. At present, it houses about 200 minimum-security inmates.

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

Congress passed a measure earlier this year that would bar terrorist 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.

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