Durbin: Thomson prison sale done

Originally Posted Online: Oct. 02, 2012, 11:54 am
Last Updated: Oct. 02, 2012, 11:28 pm
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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

The federal government is pushing through a $165 million court-approved purchase of the Thomson Correctional Center that will circumvent Congress and, finally, allow the prison to open as a federal institution, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The deal has the support of the Obama administration and, when finalized, will create up to 1,100 federal jobs at the empty correctional center, ending years of political wrangling that began in 2009 when the prison was earmarked as a potential home for Guantanamo Bay detainees. 

There were whoops of joy from a small crowd gathered outside Thomson's Village Hall on Tuesday when Sen. Durbin -- alongside Gov. Pat Quinn and Thomson Mayor Jerry "Duke" Hebeler -- announced the sale of the prison. 

Illinois spent $140 million in 2001 to build Thomson Correctional Center, but it has been largely empty since then. Thomson is about an hour's drive north of the Quad Cities. 

The appraised valued of the prison is now $220 million, but Gov. Quinn agreed to the $165 million sale price. Illinois has agreed to a "friendly condemnation" of the prison, Sen. Durbin said, that will let it be transferred to the federal bureau of prisons, a process that could take up to three months to complete.

On Tuesday, Gov. Quinn said Illinois has received the $165 million.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., had delayed the prison's sale, refusing to sign off on a request to use $165 million in unobligated funds to pay it. Rep. Wolf chairs a House subcommittee that oversees prison spending. His Senate counterpart, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., has agreed to the sale.

Rep. Wolf opposed the sale, saying he did not believe legal assurances the institution would not be used to house Guantanamo detainees as was originally stated. The transfer of Guantanamo inmates has been prohibited by Congress, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified that Thomson would not be used to house foreign detainees.

Rep. Wolf was not pleased with how the prison agreement finally was pushed through against his will.

“President Obama’s unprecedented directive to Attorney General Holder to circumvent Congress to purchase Thomson prison is deeply troubling,” he said. 

“It directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire." 

Sen. Durbin said the federal bureau of prisons only asked Congress to back the Thomson agreement as "a courtesy." After spending a year trying to convince Rep. Wolf to do so, Sen. Durbin said he "went to the top" and asked President Barack Obama to intervene. 

The president gave his word that the transfer of the prison would be completed, Sen. Durbin said, adding that, on Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois was filing documents in the federal court in Rockford to begin a "court-guided friendly condemnation" process to complete the sale.

Sen. Durbin said he did not think the prison transfer can be successfully challenged through the courts. The sale will create "several hundred construction jobs" to allow Thomson to become a federal prison, he said.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, unsuccessfully had pushed his Republican colleagues to agree to the sale. At the suggestion of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Schilling tried to lower the price of the prison to just $75 million, but that offer was rebuffed by Gov. Quinn. 

On Monday, Rep. Schilling said he was "highly frustrated" by opposition to the deal. He said he had talked to Rep. Wolf until he was "blue in the face" seeking to get his colleague to sign off on the sale.

Rep. Schilling noted the courts could have been used early by the Obama administration to complete the sale, leading some to speculate whether Tuesday's announcement was timed to coincide with the approaching election.

"The president could have done this quite a while ago," said Rep. Schilling. 

Sen. Durbin on Tuesday said he had hoped Rep. Schilling would gain his colleagues' support for the Thomson purchase.

"I asked the congressman to do one thing -- to get Rep. Wolf to sign the letter -- but he couldn't do it," Sen. Durbin said. "He couldn't get it done."

Sen. Durbin has a close relationship with Rep. Schilling's Nov. 6 challenger, Democrat Cheri Bustos of East Moline. Ms. Bustos has criticized Rep. Schilling for not getting Republican support of the Thomson sale.

Sen. Durbin did call Rep. Schilling early Tuesday to tell him the deal was going through. Rep. Schilling was in Thomson Tuesday for Sen. Durbin's announcement, but wasn't invited to speak at the news conference. 

Sen. Durbin said the prison's sale will provide a big economic boost to Thomson where village officials have campaigned in vain for years to get the maximum security prison fully opened. 

Roadblocks may still lie ahead before Thomson is opened as a federal prison. While the federal bureau of prisons has money to buy the Thomson facility, funding must still be appropriated next year for construction work required to bring it up to federal standards and hire staff. 

As noted by Rep. Wolf, existing federal prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire also are waiting for funding so they can open.

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