WASHINGTON – Taking an important step on the thorny path to closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the White House plans to announce Tuesday that the government will acquire an underutilized state prison in rural Illinois to be the new home for a limited number of terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo.
Administration officials as well as Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn will make an official announcement at the White House.
Officials from both the White House and Durbin's office confirmed that President Barack Obama had directed the government to acquire Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., a sleepy town near the Mississippi River about 150 miles from Chicago.
A Durbin aide said the facility would house federal inmates and no more than 100 detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
The facility in Thomson had emerged as a clear front-runner after Illinois officials, led by Durbin, enthusiastically embraced the idea of turning a near-dormant prison over to federal officials.
Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., said Tuesday morning he had "full confidence that the facility will hold these terrorism suspects safely and securely." In a statement, Burris said that with Illinois struggling with 11 percent unemployment, the transfer will be "a great economic benefit to the state by creating over 3,000 well-paying jobs and bringing in valuable federal dollars to fund local facility operations."
The White House has been coy about its selection process, but on Friday a draft memo leaked to a conservative Web site that seemed to indicate officials were homing in on Thomson.
The Thomson Correctional Center was one of several potential sites evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to potentially house detainees from the Navy-run prison at Guantanamo Bay. Officials with other prisons, including Marion, Ill., Hardin, Mont., and Florence, Colo., have said they would welcome the jobs that would be created by the new inmates.
Closing Guantanamo is a top priority for Obama, and he signed an executive order hours into his presidency directing that the process of closing the prison begin. Obama has said he wants terrorism suspects transferred to American soil so they can be tried for their suspected crimes.
The Thomson Correctional Center was built by Illinois in 2001 as a state prison with the potential to house maximum security inmates. Local officials hoped it would improve the local economy, providing jobs to a hard-hit community. State budget problems, however, have kept the 1,600-cell prison from ever fully opening. At present, it houses about 200 minimum-security inmates.
Obama has faced some resistance to the idea of housing terrorism suspects in the United States, but in Thomson many have welcomed the prospect as a potential economic engine. Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler, was asleep when the word came that Thomson had been chosen.
"It's news to me, but then I'm always the last to know anything," Hebeler said Monday night of the news affecting his town of 450 residents. "It'll be good for the village and the surrounding area, especially with all the jobs that have been lost here."
But Hebeler said he wouldn't rejoice until "the ink is on the paper" because previous plans for increased use of the nearly empty prison have fallen through.
Some Illinois officials have not supported the idea. GOP Rep. Mark Kirk, who is seeking Obama's old Senate seat, said he believes moving Guantanamo detainees to Illinois will make the state a greater threat for terrorist attacks. Kirk has lobbied other officials to contact the White House in opposition to using the facility.
To be sure, Thomson will not solve all the administration's Guantanamo-related problems. There still will be dozens of detainees who are not relocated to Thomson, other legal issues and potential resistance from Congress.
Thomson is a symbolic step, however, a clear sign that the United States is working to find a new place to hold detainees from Guantanamo.