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Hundreds Attend Public Hearing on Plan to Transfer Guantanamo Detainees to US Prison

Supporters and opponents of a plan to transfer about 100 detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a prison in the U.S. state of Illinois attended a public hearing on the matter Tuesday.

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While many residents in the area support the move because of the jobs they hope it will bring, many across the state oppose any plan to house detainees on U.S. soil.  The hearing in the town of Sterling, Illinois, offered a chance for the public to hear from officials on the plan.

In mid-December, President Barack Obama directed the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to purchase the under-utilized Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois from the state to house about 100 detainees from Guantanamo.  The proposed sale touches on two major issues for residents in the area: providing jobs and money to an area suffering high unemployment during the recession, and concerns about security if terror suspects are housed there.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn's Chief Operating Officer Jack Lavin said selling Thomson to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons would help create jobs.

"The White House Counsel of Economic Advisors has estimated that up to 3,800 jobs and more than $1 billion of economic activity in Illinois will be generated in just its first four years of operation," Lavin said.

Lavin spoke before members of the State of Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability gathered at a high school auditorium in Sterling, about 30 kilometers from the Thomson prison, for the only public hearing on the proposal.

He also sought to allay concerns about security.

"No detainees transferred from Guantanamo to the United States will be released domestically," Lavin said. "No detainees transferred to Thomson will be tried in Illinois Federal Courts."

That did not convince many of the several hundred people - supporters and opponents - in attendance.

Though not an Illinois resident, Debbie Lee traveled from Arizona to attend the hearing.  Her son, Marc, a U.S. Navy Seal, died in Iraq in 2006.  She says she visited the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2008 and opposes bringing terror suspects to the United States.

"I'm here today to make sure that they hear my voice and hear what I personally saw down there," Lee said. "My son gave up his life fighting terrorists so that we wouldn't ever have them back here in this country again."

 Tom Brackemeyer, however, said he supports the sale of the prison.  He said the benefit to the local community would go beyond jobs at the prison itself.

"We've lost jobs, we need jobs," Brackemeyer said.  "It's not only the jobs inside the prison.  It's the jobs it will create outside the prison.  There's going to be expanded jobs outside."

Todd Pustelnik, currently a prison guard at Thomson, worried the proposed sale could jeopardize his job because the federal and state prison systems have different requirements.

"We don't have rights to slide over into the federal prison system," Pustelnik said.  "We would have to go ahead and apply just like everyone else, and the requirements to work in a federal facility versus a state facility are a little difficult for me." 

The 12-member commission will deliver its findings to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Even if the commission members oppose the sale of the prison, Governor Quinn is not obligated to follow their recommendations. 

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