Illinois can’t escape prison impasse

The dispute over the vacant Thomson Correction Center in rural Northwest Illinois reignited last week as Illinois Republican members of Congress want to make absolutely, positively sure that Barack Obama won’t house current Guantanamo Bay detainees there. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and Illinois House Republicans signed a letter instructing Obama to officially rule out housing terrorist detainees at Thomson, reports Nicole Thompson of the Chicago Daily Herald. The problem is that there is no problem. Obama, Illinois Congressional Republicans, Illinois Congressional Democrats, state government, and U.S. Dept. of Justice Federal Bureau of Prison officials are in firm agreement that Thomson should be converted to a federal prison, not a terrorist detention facility. So why the fighting?

The president’s November 2009 proposed move of inmates to Thomson, Illinois was an ill-fated attempt to fulfill a promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by January 2010. There was overwhelming Congressional opposition to funding the detainee transfer and so, by June 2010, Obama and his former Senate colleague, Dick Durbin, devised a Plan B. That would be to convert Thomson to a federal prison — a plan that would do nothing to solve the Guantanamo problem but would give Northwest Illinois an economic boost. The White Houseestimated in December 2009 that more than 3,000 jobs would come from the federal government taking over Thomson. Federal Bureau of Prison officials  liked this idea, as it would reduce crowding elsewhere. And Illinois Republicans were not going to argue against more local jobs.

But the state’s attempted “auction” of Thomson in December to the feds failed, mainly because Congress had not appropriated the money. Given that Congress is currently figuring out its budget for both the rest of this year and fiscal-year 2012, now’s a good time to fund the prison. Yet Illinois Republican priorities tend more towards picking a fight with Obama. On the other hand, Obama could sign the letter, but doing so might draw attention to the fact that more than two years into his presidency, he still doesn’t have a plan to close Guantanamo.

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