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US Officials Consider Illinois Prison to House Detainees

Relocating Guantanamo detainees could boost small community

Thompson, Illinois
Thompson, Illinois

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Kane Farabaugh

When President Barack Obama announced he planned to close the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that raised the question -- where to send the facilities' terrorist suspects.  Lawmakers in several states with suitable facilities say they don't want them.  But some lawmakers and residents in tiny Thomson, Illinois hope the detainees end up in their town.

When it was built in 2001, the Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois was supposed to house the hardest criminals in the state.

Instead, it has sat mostly vacant as Illinois descended into a budget crisis.

"This is the second largest capital expenditure the state of Illinois ever made, and it's sitting here idle," said Jonathan Whitney, the publisher of the Carroll County Review.  "We're tiny, we're here in the heart of America, and have been. The paper dates back to 1863.  We cover local news, but in this case, it happens to be national news."

The possible sale of the Thomson Correctional Center to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons puts a spotlight on this small town of roughly 600 people along the Mississippi River.  The facility is among several sites being considered to house the terrorist suspects now held at Guantanamo Bay.

Jerry Hebeler, the Thomson Village president, said, "I know the word terrorist scares a lot of people, which it did me."

But Hebeler also sees the prison as an opportunity to reverse an economic decline in the area. "For 3,000 jobs.  An estimated one billion over four years in revenue.  It would help the economy.  Our unemployment in Carroll County is 10.5 percent.  Maybe that would cut it down in half," he said.

Most people support the idea of job growth in the area.  But newspaper publisher Whitney points out that once the federal government takes control of the prison, residents will have little say about who is incarcerated there.  Detainees from Guantanamo Bay aren't the only concern. "Now along with that federal prison probably comes something that could be much more dangerous, and that could be Colombian drug cartel people or the Mexican drug cartel people," he said.

Jerry Hebeler is trying to temper the concerns of his citizens while offering the town an opportunity to grow. "We need to be safe.  We need to give people hope.  We need to give people opportunities to keep their families here.  This is our shot to do all three," he said.

Town officials here stress that no decision has yet been made by the U.S. government to purchase this facility.  They also add that facilities in Michigan, Montana, and Colorado are also under consideration.

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