Turning Thomson Correctional Center into a federal prison would divert money away from four other newly built but empty federal prisons that need funding to open, according to U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.|
Construction was completed on one of those prisons, in Berlin, N.H., in 2010 at a cost of $276 million. Two years later the 1,300 capacity prison is idle and needs about $60 million to be activated, according to Rep. Wolf. Local media reports in New Hampshire estimate it costs $4 million a year to run the empty prison.
Rep. Wolf opposes the sale of Thomson prison to the federal government and has been resisting pressure from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, to use his position on a key congressional committee to sign off on the sale.
On Friday, Rep. Wolf again reiterated his total opposition to the Thomson sale, which is supported by Gov. Pat Quinn.
Rep. Wolf's initial opposition was based on a fear that Thomson prison would be used to house Guantanamo Bay detainees. But he's now building opposition to the plan because he says it would delay the opening of the four empty federal prisons in New Hampshire, West Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi.
The prison at Thomson has been largely unused since construction was completed by the state in 2001.
Construction on the medium-security prison in Aliceville, Ala., was completed early this year at a cost of $250 million. Lawmakers in Alabama want the 350 jobs the prison will provide when it opens. The state's entire House delegation has made it known they oppose the Thomson sale because it could slow down the opening of the Aliceville prison.
It typically takes two years after construction of a federal prison is completed for the prison to open for inmates, according to Rep. Wolf's office, and costs an average of $60 million to open a federal prison on top of construction costs.
The two other newly built federal prisons in Hazelton, W-Va., and Yazoo, Miss., are expected to be opened in 2013 but more funds are needed to make the facilities ready.
"The request to purchase Thomson unfairly jumps the line of the prisons in Alabama, New Hampshire and West Virginia that are ready to be opened, pending funding," Rep. Wolf wrote in a letter to Sen. Durbin on Friday. "Each of these facilities would create hundreds of new jobs in these states. How do you explain to these people that their jobs should be delayed to move Thomson to the front of the line?"
The federal maximum-security prison system holds 53 percent more inmates than it was designed for, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and as a maximum-security prison Thomson would ease some of that pressure. Of the four unopened federal prisons only the West Virginia prison is maximum-security.
Rep. Wolf also has stated that the funding mechanism for the Thomson sale is an earmark and not allowed by House rules.
The debate over the proposed sale of Thomson has been ongoing since 2009 but was reignited recently when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent a new request to congress to "reprogram" $165 million in already approved prison funding to allow the sale to go through.
Rep. Wolf quickly blocked that proposal as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science. Sen. Durbin pushed hard for the sale and has insisted the funding arrangement was not earmark.
Arguably the politician with the most to lose by the failure to complete the Thomson sale is Rep. Schilling, who has made a high profile attempt to move the sale forward and who in the midst of highly competitive campaign against East Moline Democrat Cheri Bustos.
Ms. Bustos said she'd like to see the prison sale completed before the November election, even if that would boost Rep. Schilling's campaign.
Rep. Schilling, meanwhile, remains focused on finding a "bipartisan" solution to the impasse. It remains unclear what that solution might be.
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