Future of Illinois prison near Clinton in doubt

Deals struck during the Congressional lame-duck session have scuttled for now the federal government’s plan to purchase and open the Thomson Correctional Center facility in Illinois. The high-security prison was mostly built in 2001 but never utilized for lack of state budget funds. A year ago, officials announced plans for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to purchase the facility. The plan involved the Defense Department leasing part of one building to house some detainees transferred from the Guantanamo Bay military prison. Clinton, Iowa lies just across the Mississippi River from Thomson and is the main population center for the area. Local, state and federal officials estimated that opening the prison would generate nearly a thousand jobs directly and more indirectly as workers spent money in the local economy. In late 2009, Representative Bruce Braley said his constituents supported the plan for a new prison at Thomson, while prominent Iowa Republicans stoked fears about bringing terror suspects to a maximum-security facility anywhere in the midwest.

When drafting the 2011 defense authorization bill, House members barred the use of any federal funds for a facility to house former Guantanamo detainees, pending “a thorough and comprehensive plan that outlines the merits, costs, and risks associated with utilizing such a facility.” Similar language made it into the final version of the defense authorization bill, which the House and Senate approved on December 22. The provision will prevent the Obama administration from trying some terrorism suspects in U.S. civilian courts, and was struck to secure Republican support. (By some accounts, Republicans insisted on this provision in exchange for letting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal move forward.)

Federal Bureau of Prisons officials made clear this year that they still planned to purchase the Thomson Correction Center to relieve overcrowding in the federal prison system. However, it would cost the federal government more than $200 million to purchase and renovate the facility. The 2011 federal budget omnibus bill included funding to buy the Thomson Correctional Center, but an uproar over earmarks prompted Senate Republicans to reject the omnibus bill on December 16. Consequently, the federal government is operating on a continuing spending authorization until March 2011. Republican Congressional leaders have promised big domestic spending cuts next year, and it’s not clear whether the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department, will have the money to purchase Thomson. When the state of Illinois attempted to auction the facility last week, neither the federal government nor anyone else placed a bid.

The stalemate surrounding federal plans for Thomson runs counter to a decades-long American tradition of bipartisan political support for prisons as economic development projects.

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