Obama orders Guantanamo detainees to Thomson

July 22, 2010 9:55:15 AM PDT
President Barack Obama is ordering the federal government to acquire an underutilized state prison in rural Illinois to be the new home for a limited number of terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.Thomson Correctional Center will soon be the new home for more than a 100 terrorist suspects.

The move is expected to bring thousands of jobs to the village of Thomson, Illinois. But critics say it will create a security risk.

The day after he was inaugurated, President Obama issued an executive order to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The White House says this is an effort to begin that process.

Many Democrats praise the president's choice saying it will bring much needed jobs, but some Republicans want more input in the decision to house terrorists in the heartland.

The prison is a state of the art maximum security facility that sits about 150 miles west of Chicago. It has been mostly empty since it was built in 2001. It will become home to as many as 100 federal inmates and detainees.

"This means a lot for our state in terms of economic opportunity. We're in a depressed area of Illinois, western Illinois with severe unemployment. More than 3,000 jobs will be created," said Gov. Pat Quinn.

"The people of Illinois deserve to have a say in their representation. It should not be done by edict from the governor," said State Sen. Matt Murphy, (R) Palatine.

Opponents of the move, including Republican Congressman Mark Kirk, say transferring prisoners to Illinois is not a jobs program and he fears Thomson will become a target.

"The key Al-Qaida corp will not be at an obscure military base at the tip of Cuba. It will be right in the heartland," said Kirk.

"This will be more secure than any other prison in our country and, number two, we already have over 350 convicted killers around the United States and there have been no incidents," said Sen. Dick Durbin, (D) Illinois.

But not all Republicans are against the plan. Former Illinois governor Jim Thompson, who was a member of the 9-11 commission, says it's a wise decision.

"I think some of the worst people in the nation are already housed in Illinois. I don't think Gitmo detainees add to the level of risk," said Thompson.

White House officials also announced Tuesday that military trials will be held at the Thomson Correctional Center.

Meantime, state Republicans have asked the Illinois attorney general for her legal opinion on whether Gov. Quinn can sell the prison to the federal government without a state vote. Republicans are threatening legal action if Quinn acts on his own.

Town of Thomson reacts

Most of the residents of Thomson are pleased with Tuesday's announcement that the feds plan to buy the town's prison.

Thomson is a small town of about 600 residents.

The prison has gone largely unused in the eight years since it was first constructed. The fact that it would have a new owner is largely welcomed despite the notoriety of the international alleged terrorists who will be housed in the facility.

There must be a property appraisal first, an agreed to sale price, and a change in the law before it can happen which prompts the mayor to say, 'I'll believe it when I see it.'

In a tiny village hall in Thompson, the phone has been ringing off the hook. The part-time mayor has received calls from Italy, London, and beyond.

"Communities and surrounding communities and counties, it's going to help everybody," said Jerry Hebler, Thomson mayor.

That seems to be the prevailing opinion in the little town where unemployment is well beyond 10 percent. Converting the prison into a federal supermax may not mean a well spring of jobs for the locals but it can't hurt the economy.

"The guards that do come here are going to have a place to live. They're going to buy groceries, so it' going to benefit the economy," said Gary Arnold, Thomson resident.

"I would say most of the business community I talked to are willing to accept the Gitmo people here as a price to get the federal prison here for the long term," said Jon Whitney, Carroll County Review publisher.

But is there concern among the locals about the facility housing international terrorists as long-term detainees? There is surely curiosity about that, but no palpable fear.

"It's a state-of-the-art prison. Don't have to worry about them breaking out of there," said Arnold Sikkema, Carroll County resident.

Some residents joke that tiny Thompson will be on the international map and the maybe the biggest cost in that is a change in lifestyle.

"I just have enjoyed living in a quite, little, rural community that doesn't have a lot of excitement, we have one stoplight in the whole county, and I think we're going to lose some of that," said Elizabeth Hough, Carroll County resident.

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