Republicans may try to derail federal funding for Thomson prison startup

Originally Posted Online: Oct. 03, 2012, 6:44 pm
Last Updated: Oct. 03, 2012, 8:57 pm
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By Eric Timmons,

It will cost an estimated $62 million on top of the $165 million purchase price to open Thomson Correctional Center as a federal prison, and Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate remain opposed to the deal and could attempt to derail it.

Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, both have condemned the purchase of the prison by the federal government, which was announced by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Tuesday and has the support of President Barack Obama.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., will attempt to block funding to open the prison next year when prison funding is raised as part of fiscal year 2013 appropriations, spokeswoman Jill Shatzen said. Rep. Wolf is a longtime foe of the Thomson deal and holds a key position on a House committee that oversees prison spending.

But funding for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will not be broken out among different prisons when appropriations are made, said Sen. Durbin's spokeswoman, Christina Mulka, allowing prison chiefs to decide how the money is spent.

Leftover funds from previous years also could be used to open Thomson, she said, although it's still difficult to know when the prison could open.

"I don't want to put a timeline on it just yet," Ms. Mulka said. "But we are hoping it will be soon."

There are federal prisons in New Hampshire, Alabama, West Virginia and Mississippi waiting for activation funds before they can be opened. Rep. Wolf has rallied lawmakers in those states to oppose the Thomson sale by arguing it could further delay funding for prisons in their territories.

However, U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, in a letter to Rep. Wolf on Tuesday, said Thomson becoming a federal prison would not hurt the other prison projects.

Mr. Holder noted that activation funding for the four prisons was included in President Obama's fiscal year 2013 budget request, although the spending plan has not been approved by Congress.

The Bureau of Prisons already has identified 2,500 inmates in other federal prisons that could be housed in Thomson, according to Mr. Holder. In his letter to Rep. Wolf, he said the space at Thomson was "desperately needed" to reduce overcrowding at other prisons. The prison, built in 2001, has 1,600 cells.

Thomson will cost roughly $62 million to activate, which includes $25 million in construction costs to bring it up to federal standards and $37 million for the first six months of operational costs, according to Sen. Durbin's office.

A new prison equivalent to Thomson would cost $400 million to build, Mr. Holder wrote to Rep. Wolf.

Mr. Holder said $151 million of the funding for the Thomson purchase will come from the Department of Justice's assets forfeiture fund, with $9 million from BOP's salaries and expenses account and $5 million from BOP's modernization and repair fund.

The federal government is acquiring Thomson through a condemnation process, a type of eminent domain action, and filed documents at the federal court in Rockford on Tuesday. The legal process could take up to three months to complete, Sen. Durbin's office said.

Sen. McConnell, R-Ky., suggested the move to buy Thomson was politically motivated and went against the wishes of Congress. The Republican Senate leader also echoed Rep. Wolf's concern about the other prisons waiting for activation money.

"This election-eve purchase comes at the expense of delaying approved projects that are not in the President's home state," Sen. McConnell said.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are still claiming Thomson could be used to house the remaining inmates held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, passed with the support of Republicans, made it illegal to transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the U.S. Mr. Holder also has testified under oath that Thomson will not be used for foreign detainees.

The assurances were enough to satisfy U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, but not some of his Republican colleagues, whom he pushed to support the sale of Thomson.

Speaker Boehner released a scathing statement in opposition to the Thomson deal Tuesday that said the White House was continuing "to move forward with its dangerous plan" to bring Guantanamo detainees to the United States.

Asked about Speaker Boehner's comments, a spokesman for Rep. Schilling said, "Sometimes you have to break with the leadership, and this is one of those times."

Gov. Pat Quinn's spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the $165 million the state received for the prison will be used to pay down some of the debt associated with building the prison and the rest will be used to pay off other debt. The state originally appropriated $140 million to build Thomson but ended up only paying $128 million for the prison, she said.


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