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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Illinois prison may not house Guantanamo prisoners after all

In December, the Obama administration signaled its intention to move some federal prisoners as well as detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from Clinton, Iowa.

However, on May 19 the House Armed Services Committee “unanimously approved a defense bill for 2011 that bans spending money to build or modify any facility inside the United States to house Guantánamo detainees,” the New York Times reported.

At TalkLeft, Jeralyn posted an excerpt from the bill summary:

The Committee firmly believes that the construction or modification of any facility in the U.S. to detain or imprison individuals currently being held at Guantanamo must be accompanied by a thorough and comprehensive plan that outlines the merits, costs, and risks associated with utilizing such a facility. No such plan has been presented to date. The bill prohibits the use of any funds for this purpose. Additionally, the bill requires the Secretary of Defense to present Congress with a report that adequately justifies any proposal to build or modify such a facility in the future.

Last fall prominent Iowa Republicans fanned fears about terrorists in the heartland as a political weapon against President Obama and Representative Bruce Braley, who represents the Iowa counties closest to Thomson, Illinois. At the time, Braley expressed support for the plan to convert the Illinois facility, saying his constituents “have told me with a resounding voice they want these jobs to come to their area.” Some jobs will almost certainly come to the area in 2011 or 2012, because the federal government still plans to purchase and renovate the Thomson Correctional Center to use for federal prisoners, with or without detainees from Guantanamo.

Iowa Democrats Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell are among the 61 members of the House Armed Services Committee. I don’t know whether they were present at Wednesday’s meeting, where the defense authorization bill passed by a 59 to 0 vote.

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Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 2)

Following up on my review of news from the first half of last year, I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from July through December 2009 after the jump.

Hot topics on this blog during the second half of the year included the governor’s race, the special election in Iowa House district 90, candidates announcing plans to run for the state legislature next year, the growing number of Republicans ready to challenge Representative Leonard Boswell, state budget constraints, and a scandal involving the tax credit for film-making.

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Some Guantanamo prisoners will be moved to Illinois prison

Talking Points Memo reports,

On Tuesday, the administration will announce that the president has directed that the federal government proceed with the acquisition of the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois to house federal inmates and a limited number of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times has more details:

In addition to the detainees, several hundred federal prisoners will be moved to the Thomson facility, which was built in 2001 to house state prisoners but has instead stood nearly empty as local officials have vainly tried to fill it. […]

The prison, if the deal goes through, will be run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, according to the administration’s plan. The agency is expected to bring 1,600 to 2,000 prisoners to the Thomson facility.

Authorities will also spend some time bulking up security.

The federal Bureau of Prisons will add razor wire between the existing double fences and beef up the existing fence detection system. The Defense Department, which would lease a portion of the facility, would also erect another perimeter fence around the 146-acre complex, according to plans.

The administration has said it would exceed security at the country’s only “Supermax” prison in Colorado.

It’s not clear precisely how many foreign detainees would be brought to Thomson, though [Senator Dick] Durbin [of Illinois] has put the number at less than 100.

Get ready for more Republican scare tactics aimed at undermining Representative Bruce Braley, who represents the Clinton area, just across the Mississippi River from Thomson. I doubt the Iowa GOP will get much traction from this issue, though. The Des Moines Register’s conservative columnist, John Carlson, recently found broad support in Clinton for the plan to expand the Thomson facility.

Braley said last month that his constituents “have told me with a resounding voice they want these jobs to come to their area.”

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Guantanamo prisoners to be moved to Illinois?

The conservative blog biggovernment.com published an alleged December 10 memo from the Department of Justice to Defense Secretary Robert Gates authorizing the transfer of some prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. The center was built to be a high-security state prison but has mostly remained mothballed for lack of state funding to operate it. Elected officials in Illinois have urged the federal government to use this facility to house some of the alleged terrorist prisoners because doing so is expected to create around 3,000 jobs in the area.

Iowa Republicans have been hammering Bruce Braley (IA-01) over this proposal, because the Thomson facility is just across the river from Clinton, Iowa. However, Braley says his constituents overwhelmingly favor the plan.

I will update this post if other reports confirm the authenticity of the memo.

UPDATE: Ed Tibbetts reported for the Quad-City Times:

An administration official, responding to the memo Friday, cautioned that it is only a draft and said it is not unusual for such documents to be prepared for multiple possibilities.

“This is a draft, predecisional document that lawyers at various agencies were drafting in preparation for a potential future announcement about where to house Gitmo detainees,” the official said.

“Drafts of official documents are often prepared for any and all possibilities, regardless of whether a decision has been made about the policy or if the document will be used,” said the official, who requested not to be identified because the person was not authorized to discuss the issue.

Despite the cautions, top Illinois backers were reacting positively to the development.

“Even though the final decision has not been made, we are encouraged by this development,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement.

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Braley says constituents support plan for Illinois prison

Representative Bruce Braley has rejected Republican critics of a proposal to transfer some prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the Thomson Correctional Center, just across the Mississippi River from Clinton.

“The time for fear-mongering is over,” Braley said. “I have listened to my constituents all week, and they have told me with a resounding voice they want these jobs to come to their area.”

According to the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, the plan for Thomson “would create 840 to 910 temporary jobs and between 3,180 and 3,880 ongoing jobs over the first four years,” and local residents could fill as many as 1,400 of those jobs.

Iowa Republicans don’t appear ready to stop stoking fears about terrorists coming to a prison near you. State GOP chairman Matt Strawn’s November 20 e-mail blast slammed Braley, along with Representatives Leonard Boswell and Dave Loebsack:

On the only vote specifically related to keeping these terrorists off American soil, all three voted to welcome them with open arms. Now Iowans face the prospect of them being housed minutes from our state.

Iowa’s Republican members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King both voted in support of the legislation keeping terrorist detainees out of the U.S. […]

Additionally, Congressman Latham this week introduced the ‘Keep Terrorists out of the Midwest Act” following the news that the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., has emerged as a leading option for prosecution and incarceration.

I gather that Republicans are confident this is a winning issue for them, but is there any evidence that Iowans are afraid to have prisoners moved to a maximum-security facility on the other side of the Mississippi? John Carlson, the Des Moines Register’s conservative columnist, went to Clinton last week and found broad support for the plan.  

I’d like to hear from Bleeding Heartland readers who live in the area. Will Republicans score political points with this controversy, or will their efforts backfire in eastern Iowa counties that stand to gain jobs from Thomson’s expansion?

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