CHICAGO – The federal government has agreed to buy the closed Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois for $165 million after the sale was held up for nearly three years, state leaders announced Tuesday.
Many Illinois leaders – including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn who spoke to The Associated Press ahead of a news conference to announce the sale – supported the purchase because they said it would bring up to 1,100 jobs to Illinois. Federal officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, have said it would help alleviate prison overcrowding.
“It means a prison that has been sitting here empty will be used again and create a lot of opportunity for working families in the areas,” Durbin said.
The sale of the facility in the tiny Illinois village of Thomson has been stalled for years. Most recently, Virginia Republican U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who heads a key House subcommittee overseeing the federal Bureau of Prisons, objected to the purchase because he believed terrorism suspects would be housed there. The Obama administration, which supports the sale, has vowed that won’t happen and federal law now prohibits any transfers from Guantanamo Bay to Thomson.
Durbin reasserted that vow Tuesday, saying transfers from Guantanamo Bay must be housed in a military facility and that Thomson, 150 miles west of Chicago, would not be equipped to serve that purpose. He added that getting someone like Wolf to sign off is a longstanding courtesy but not a legal necessity. Illinois leaders repeatedly tried to meet with Wolf to change his mind but were unsuccessful, the Democrat said.
Instead, the Department of Justice moved on its own authority – and on the Bureau of Prisons’ behalf – and filed paperwork Tuesday in federal court to transfer the prison to the federal system.
“We have deep reservations about proceeding without the support of all our appropriators. Department leadership requested multiple meetings with you to discuss the Thomson purchase, to dispel the concerns you have had with the acquisition, and to explain how the facility would be used,” Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a letter Tuesday to Wolf. “Unfortunately, you declined those requests. ... Under these circumstances, the Administration has decided to proceed with the purchase.”
He explained that $151 million would come from the department’s assets forfeiture fund, $9 million from the Bureau of Prison’s salaries and expenses account and $5 million from the bureau’s modernizations and repair account. He said no money would be taken from four other prisons scheduled to open in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire.
Spokesmen with the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons didn’t immediately have further details.
Wolf immediately blasted the move calling it “deeply troubling” and an “unprecedented directive to ... circumvent Congress.”
“I am concerned that this purchase will set in motion the administration’s plan to close the terrorist detention facility in Guantanamo Bay by transferring terrorist detainees to U.S. maximum security prisons, like Thomson,” he said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, concurred.
“This back-door move by the Obama Administration to open Thomson and reject the will of Congress and the American people is dangerously irresponsible, and will be met with the full and unfettered opposition of the Appropriations Committee,” he said in a statement.
Thomson prison was built in 2001. But budget troubles kept it from fully opening and its 1,600 cells housed fewer than 200 inmates before the facility was closed in preparation for a sale. The last inmates were moved out in 2010.
The Bureau of Prisons first proposed buying the prison in 2009. At that time, the proposal included using some of the prison for transfers from Guantanamo Bay. That idea was dropped after vocal public opposition.
Federal appraisals on the value of Thomson have varied, but an average of three appraisals in 2012 was $220 million. Federal officials have said that building a new prison instead of buying Thomson would cost about $400 million and take years.
Illinois officials estimated the state could get the money by the end of the year.
Quinn called Tuesday’s court action an important step. He said lawmakers would ultimately decide what would be done with the money but that some of it would likely be used to pay down Illinois’ massive backlog of unpaid bills.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said.
State officials estimated that annual operation of the facility would generate more than $122 million in operating expenditures, including salaries and $61 million in local business sales.