As it maneuvers to close the Guantánamo Bay terrorism camp and move detainees to the US, the Obama administration is eyeing an underused state prison in tiny Thomson, Ill., a town of about 600 people on the Mississippi River in the northwest part of the state. On Monday, a delegation from the US Bureau of Prisons toured the Thomson Correctional Center.
To overcome a congressional ban on detaining the suspects on US soil, local support for the move would likely be key – a hurdle helped over the weekend by strong backing from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D). Both touted the idea as a rare opportunity to bring some 3,000 jobs and up to $1 billion over four years to a part of the state in desperate need of an economic jolt.
Housing any of the detainees at Thomson would be "good for our state, good for our economy and good for our public safety," Governor Quinn said Sunday at a news conference.
But already the plan is generating controversy, with politicians dividing primarily along party lines in a debate that comes down to jobs versus security.
Republicans – including Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, a candidate in next year's US Senate race, and Rep. Donald Manzullo, who represents the district where Thomson is located – are questioning the wisdom of bringing some 100 terrorist suspects to Illinois, potentially making the area a target for Al Qaeda attack.
If the prisoners are moved to Thomson, "our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment, and radicalization," wrote Representative Kirk in an open letter to President Obama. "As home to America's tallest building and leading defense suppliers, we should not invite Al Qaeda to make Illinois its number one target."
Kirk also noted that any trials of detainees in civilian court would need to take place either in Rockford, Ill., or downtown Chicago, because there are no court facilities near the prison. On Monday, he called for a "homeland security impact study" to examine the danger posed to O'Hare Airport and Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, before any federal funds could be spent to transfer prisoners to Thomson. Another House Republican from Illinois, Aaron Schock, said he would introduce a measure, modeled after one trying to keep Guantánamo detainees from being shipped to South Carolina, that would prohibit the use of federal dollars to move detainees to Thomson.
The prison, a maximum-security facility that the federal government would turn into a super-maximum-security facility, was built in 2001 with fanfare and the promise of jobs. Eight years later, the only part of the prison that has opened is the minimum-security wing. Though Thomson has 1,600 cells, it houses fewer than 150 prisoners.
The idea to sell the prison to the federal government came from Thomson Village President Jerry Hedeler, who in May wrote a letter to Quinn calling attention to the region's economic plight and pleading for attention to be given to the prison. The governor then floated the idea to the federal government, highlighting the prison's safety features, including a 12-foot-high exterior fence and a 15-foot-high interior fence that includes an electric-stun component.
Quinn, Senator Durbin, and other supporters – including some Democratic candidates for Illinois' Senate seat – played down the fears of a security risk, noting that 35 convicted terrorists are already serving time in Illinois prisons and that no one has ever escaped from a federal super-maximum prison.
Such top-level support from the state that would actually house the detainees is likely to give the idea a boost.
But it's too soon to discount the public's concern about security.
"Some voters are going to be swayed by the Republican argument, or just the general fear" around bringing terrorists to the region, says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "This isn't without risk to take a stand on the issue." Still, he says, providing strong early support could also help politicians like Quinn, who comes across as being both decisive and working to help the state's faltering economy.
"I suspect [Republicans] will try to make it a campaign issue," says Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield. "The question is whether it will have any traction, especially in this jobless recovery, with 3,000 jobs up in a depressed part of the state."
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