Posted Online: Feb. 27, 2013, 8:53 pm

Sequester could impact opening of Thomson Correctional Center

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By Eric Timmons etimmons@qconline.com

The automatic cutbacks in federal spending due to take effect Friday could create another hurdle on the path to opening Thomson Correctional Center as a federal prison.

Purchased by the federal government from Illinois for $165 million last year, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is waiting for money to both upgrade the prison and hire around 1,100 staff.

There are four other federal prisons ahead of Thomson in the queue that also are ready to open but are waiting for activation funding.

According to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, funding to open two of the prisons, in Mississippi and West Virginia, would be cancelled if the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration are implemented.

The cutbacks also would slow plans to open the prisons in New Hampshire and Alabama, Mr. Holder said in a letter sent to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. Sen. Mikulski chairs the Senate committee on appropriations.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said there likely would be a domino effect on the proposal to open Thomson as a federal prison if sequestration goes into effect.

"It's no secret that under sequestration, it will be extremely difficult to find new funding for projects across the federal government, including the activation of Thomson prison," said Sen. Durbin's spokeswoman Christina Mulka.

House Republicans and President Obama have been unable to reach a compromise to avoid $85 billion in across the board cutbacks that are due to start March 1.

The cutbacks were created inthe debt limit deal that waspassed by Congress in August 2011.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has questioned the wisdom of the decision to purchase Thomson with unappropriated money from a federal asset forfeiture fund.

In a letter to Mr. Holder published this week, Sen. Grassley said buying Thomson had prevented at least one of the other federal prisons waiting for activation funds from opening.

"Instead, the department now faces sequester holding four potentially operational prisons, and a fifth, Thomson, that requires tens of millions of dollars in renovations," Sen. Grassley wrote.

The decision to purchase Thomson was made in 2009 but met with Republican opposition because of a plan that has since been abandoned to use the prison to house Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Sen. Durbin and other supporters are hoping that President Obama will include funding to open Thomson in his next budget request.

In the meantime, a series of seminars are planned to educate the region about the employment and business opportunities the prison could create, said Cathi Lichter, an activation coordinator with the Bureau of Prisons.