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Small Illinois town willing to be next Guantanamo

President Obama wants to ship Guantanamo Bay detainees to a rural Illinois state prison. Why are locals welcoming the detainees?

By Staff writer / February 17, 2010

Savanna, Ill., upriver from Thomson, has suffered since the 2000 shutdown of a US Army depot.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

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Thomson, Ill.

As in many small towns, pride here comes in small doses: the single stoplight that hangs in nearby Savanna, the only one in the county; or the fact that Thomson is known as the "melon capital of the world" for its prodigious crop of summer's sweetest treat.

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Quaint particulars like those are about to be upended in this Mississippi River town with a turn of events guaranteed to put it on the world map – and possibly save an area that is among those hit the hardest by the nation's economic decline.

President Obama wants to ship Guantánamo Bay detainees to the Thomson Correctional Center, a nine-year-old underutilized state prison in northwest Illinois, making it the federal prison system's second "Supermax" facility.

At an eight-hour hearing in late December at a high school auditorium in nearby Sterling, Ill., political leaders grilled state and federal officials and took public comments on whether the sale of the facility to the US Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Defense would be a good deal – would guarantee the 3,000 jobs and $1 billion in development announced in the planning.

People also pressed officials, in the words of state Sen. Matt Murphy (R), for guarantees that "Al Qaeda will not use Thomson in the future as a recruiting tool."

The refrain from federal officials focused on the local benefits.

Of the 850 to 900 staff positions at the prison, 60 percent will be local, said Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Mr. Lappin added that he estimates 1,200 to 1,700 private-sector jobs will be created as a result of prison activity – "all indirect ways the prison will create jobs and reduce unemployment."

In January, a state commission approved closing the facility; now appraisals will be made to negotiate a price, says Marlena Jentz, spokeswoman for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D).

Aside from that, congressional approval is needed to transfer the prisoners to US soil.

Jay Alan Liotta, principal director of the Defense Department's office of detainee policy, said the 198 Guantánamo prisoners will be either transferred to their home country, sent to stand trial in New York City, or selected for military tribunals here.

"No timeline has been set," Mr. Liotta said, for the prison's opening.

Once the sale is final, the prison will be fortified with a second perimeter, Lappin says. The prison would also house 1,600 federal inmates, but "there will be no contact between them and the detainees," he said. (Today, only about 144 minimum-­security prisoners are at the facility.)