WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Obama administration plans to purchase a state prison in rural Thomson, regardless of whether Congress allows terrorism suspects to be transferred there, a Department of Justice official said Thursday.
In a letter to a member of the Illinois delegation to Congress, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich spelled out the administration's intent to go ahead with plans to buy the near-empty Thomson prison, even if lawmakers refuse to approve its use as a new home for detainees at the military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
At the very least, Weich said, the federal Bureau of Prisons intends to use the facility for high-security federal inmates. The letter comes in response to questions from Rep. Donald Manzullo, the Republican who represents the area in Congress.
The Department of Justice has asked for $237 million in next year's budget to buy and begin operating the facility in Thomson. It also has the option of requesting funds sooner than that to upgrade the security provisions at the prison and prepare it for its intended use.
President Barack Obama has directed the agency to buy the facility "to fulfill both of the goals of reducing federal prison overcrowding and transferring a limited number of detainees out of Guantanamo," Weich wrote in the letter. The Thomson prison is crucial to Obama's plan to shut down the infamous Guantanamo prison, which administration officials consider to be a recruiting tool for anti-American extremists worldwide.
However, the department "would be seeking to purchase the facility in Thomson even if detainees were not being considered for transfer there," the letter says.
Such an assurance could ease some objections to the Thomson purchase by members of Congress. Some are worried about the political and security fallout of moving terrorism suspects to a domestic site. Unless Congress changes current law, Guantanamo inmates couldn't be transferred to the U.S. for any purpose other than trial.
Yet that accommodation could raise concerns from local and state officials anxious for the jobs that would come with the expanded use of the facility. The Department of Defense detainees would account for an estimated one-third of the prison population.
Manzullo has voiced support for opening the Thomson Correctional Center as a federal prison because it would provide jobs for the area. He has said he has "serious reservations" about moving Guantanamo detainees there.