U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said under oath before a Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday what he has said for well over a year – that the dormant prison in Thomson, Illinois the federal Justice Department wants to buy would never hold detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.
Instead, the facility, built by the state government in 2002 only to languish, will house federal inmates. According to the claims by Illinois Democrats and Republicans, the Obama administration, and village of Thomson, use of the prison in such a capacity would revive a downbeat local economy.
Yet one lawmaker has evidently stopped the conversion of Thomson Correctional Center to a Federal Bureau of Prisons operated facility: U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (pictured), a Republican from Virginia. “The matter has been discussed and debated for over a year,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat at the Senate committee meeting. “It was held up by one Republican Congressman.”
The Obama administration first proposed using Thomson to house terrorist detainees, but the then Democratic-controlled U.S. House overwhelmingly squelched funding for that proposal in May 2010.
Obama and Holder then pivoted to an idea, also pushed by Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn, to convert the unused facility to a federal prison, advocating the plan could create about 1,000 jobs. National and state Democratic leaders decided that the Justice Department would reprogram unspent money from its budget to buy the prison from Illinois.
But Wolf suspected that Obama was secretly planning to still use the prison for Guantanamo detainees. “The confidence level in the Attorney General and the Bureau of Prisons and the administration on this issue is not very high because they were going to go there,” Wolf said in a March 2011 House appropriations sub-committee meeting.
What a Virginia Congressman said over a year ago is relevant because Wolf is the chairman of the House spending subcommittee that controls the Justice Department budget. So he must approve any reprogramming of money. Thirteen months later, Wolf has yet to approve the reprogramming of funds, while his Senate counterpart, Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, has.
Wolf, who could not be reached for this story, has incurred the wrath of not just Durbin and Illinois Democrats, but Republicans like U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Colona), whose 17th District includes Thomson. Schilling has claimed that the prison is being derailed by “a little cat and dog fight” between Durbin and Wolf.
Other Illinois Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, support the plan, noting the Obama administration’s repeated assurances that terrorists will not come to Thomson.
If Thomson were to become a federal facility, it would have no bearing on the state’s myriad of problems with prison overcrowding and cost overruns. John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, notes that strictly federal inmates – and not members of the 48,000 state prison population – would be housed at Thomson.
As a prison reform advocate, Maki said he is skeptical about the operation of another prison, but acknowledges that “people in the area would really want it.”
That includes Jerry Hedler, village president of Thomson, which has 2,000 people. “I hope somebody opens it,” Hedler says. “It’s just been sitting there for years.”
“All I hear is that one guy is against it. I don’t see how one guy can stop it.”