Guantánamo detainees could save Michigan 340 prison jobs

Federal officials scouting for alternative prisons for detainees toured a maximum security prison in Standish, Mich., that may close due to budget cuts.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    This July 2003 file photo shows Standish Maximum Correctional Facility in Standish, Mich. On Thursday, Obama administration officials toured the prison facility as a potential site for housing Guantánamo detainees.
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It's the latest sign that the Obama administration is not backing off from its decision to close Guantánamo Bay. On Thursday, officials from the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Pentagon toured a prison facility in a small town in Michigan as a potential site for housing Guantánamo detainees.

It's one of a number of sites under consideration by the administration as it tries to figure out where to send some of the 229 detainees currently at Guantánamo. President Obama's effort to close the controversial prison by early next year and transfer some detainees to American facilities has faced push back from states reluctant to hold terror suspects in their prisons.

But sending detainees to the maximum security prison in Standish, Mich., may not be so unwelcome in a state that's seeing some of the worst economic distress in the country.

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The Standish Maximum Correctional Facility inspected Thursday is due to be closed under a state prison reorganization plan due to budget cuts. The facility has employed more than 340 workers from the area and the Associated Press quoted local officials as saying Standish would become a ghost town if the prison was shut. The county's unemployment rate is at 17.3 percent.

State officials are considering accepting prisoners from other states to keep it open and maintain the revenue the prison brings to the region. Alleged terrorists could be a different story. Some fear that any area where a prison houses detainees from Guantánamo Bay could become targets.

Security is tight at the Standish prison: The prison has five gun towers and is protected by a 16-foot double chain-link fence topped with razor-ribbon wire and monitored by a "state of the art" electronic detection system, according to a Michigan state website. It would appear likely that additional security provisions would be made before any detainees from Guantánamo Bay were housed there.

Neither the Pentagon nor Department of Homeland Security officials had any comment on the trip or the facility. An official with the White House confirmed the trip but did not make any other comments.

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was not part of the trip but has said on several occasions that he would support accepting detainees in Michigan if state and local officials agreed to it.

While it's unclear how many detainees might be transferred to US soil, it would probably be only the ones who could be tried in the US criminal justice system, says Catherine Lotrionte, a visiting professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University in Washington. That may limit how many are transferred to the US because any trials could involve evidence that draws on classified information.

It's "difficult to balance national security information and protecting [classified information] in an open federal courtroom," she says.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said often that he recognizes the opposition to transferring some detainees to American facilities, noting that he will likely hear from each member of Congress. "I fully expect to have 535 pieces of legislation before this is over saying: 'not in my district, not in my state,' " he said in May. "And we'll just have to deal with that when the time comes."

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