Plans to convert a virtually unused state prison in Illinois into a federal supermax facility are on track, the Justice Department told Illinois lawmakers on Monday, even though its potential as a site for Guantanamo Bay detainees may be foundering.
In a letter sent on Monday to Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin and Republican Rep. Don Manzullo, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said that the Obama administration is committed to acquiring the facility in Thomson, Ill., this year.
Once the property has been acquired, the entire space will be made available to the Bureau of Prisons and converted into a high-security facility with room for 1,600 inmates.
Activating the prison -- it has been virtually unused because of state budget cuts -- would provide an economic windfall to an area blighted by recession. Durbin's office has estimated that it would create more than 3,000 jobs, half of them from local applicants. What it won't do, though, is solve President Barack Obama's Guantanamo Bay problem.
After signing an executive order hours into his presidency declaring his intention to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama had eyed Thomson as a potential site for detainees. He's found strong resistance in Congress, including from Manzullo, who represents Thomson.
A Justice Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Thomson's future as a facility for the detainees.
Durbin, who's been supportive of bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to Thomson, issued a statement with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn that did not address the issue. Instead the two touted the job-making potential of Thomson's conversion to a federal facility.
"As we have said many times, this move will have an enormous impact on our state — generating thousands of good-paying jobs and potentially injecting more than $1 billion into the regional economy," they said.
Monday's letter was prompted by a request by Manzullo for the Justice Department to separate the thornier issue of where Guantanamo Bay detainees will be held from the process of turning the rest of Thomson into a supermax federal prison.
If the Defense Department wants to house Guantanamo Bay detainees at Thomson, it will have to persuade Congress to fund such efforts. Weich writes, however, that the Bureau of Prisons can and will continue the process of preparing Thomson as a standard federal prison.
Weich outlined several steps that the Bureau of Prisons has taken to prepare for a federal takeover of Thomson, including meeting with local officials and prospective job applicants in various cities to discuss staffing once the facility is acquired by the federal government.