White House: Guantanamo Detainees Will Be Sent to Illinois Prison

Administration announces plans to transfer detainees to maximum security prison.

December 15, 2009, 12:50 PM

Dec. 15, 2009 -- The U.S. government will buy the Thomson Correctional Center from the state of Illinois and use it to hold a limited number of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, along with other federal inmates, the Obama administration announced today.

The Thomson prison complex, 150 miles from Chicago is a maximum security prison that opened in 2001 but has never been fully utilized because of state budget issues. The Department of Justice will acquire TCC primarily as a facility to house Federal inmates, but will operate part of the facility "to house a limited number of detainees" from Guantanamo.

Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Roland Burris, both Democrats, as well as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, have said they support the administration's decision. After meeting with top administration officials at the White House today, Quinn told reporters Illinois is "united" and Durbin praised the president for his decision.

"This will be the safest prison in America. President Obama made the right choice for our country," Durbin said today. "His home state of Illinois stands behind the president. We see this as a great opportunity to not only serve our country but to provide meaningful jobs for a lot of people desperate for work."

In a letter to the Illinois governor, five top officials -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano -- said the move will address "the urgent overcrowding problem at our nation's Federal prisons" and "will also help achieve our goal of closing the detention center at Guantanamo in a timely, secure, and lawful manner. "

But, the reaction from Republican lawmakers in Illinois and Washington was swift and harsh.

Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., whose district contains the Thomson facility, said he is concerned "that the hatred the terrorists have toward Guantanamo would transfer to Thomson, Illinois, thus creating a magnet for terrorist activity."

"Because the decision to move Gitmo to Thomson has already been made, I'll press every level of the federal government to enhance the security of the people of this area in order to protect their families, critical workplaces, infrastructure, and schools," Manzullo said in a statement.

Rep. Peter Roskam R-Ill., called the decision "an ill-advised move that ultimately will be regretted."

"The proponents have failed to prove how this move will make America safer," Roskam said. "Let's be clear: the Administration is not closing Guantanamo, they are simply moving Guantanamo to Illinois. Illinois deserves a better Christmas present than hardened terrorists."

"The American people don't want dangerous terrorists imported on to U.S. soil, and we have had bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate reaffirming this position," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement.

Attempting to assuage concerns about safety, Quinn insisted today that the prison will be secure.

"This will be the most secure prison in America. No one has ever escaped from a federal prison. The security enhancements that are going to be put at the Thompson prison, which has been a nearly vacant prison in Illinois for about eight years, will make it the most secure maximum security prison in our country of all time," said Quinn.

The governor also noted that detainees incarcerated at this prison will only be allowed to speak to their lawyers and are not permitted to have visitors.

Administration Plans to Enhance Security Standards at Illinois Prison

But the administration also acknowledged the concerns over moving these detainees to the United States.

"The security of the facility and the surrounding region is our paramount concern," the administration letter states.

The administration plans to enhance the perimeter security standards so they will exceed those at the federal government's only "supermax" prison, in Florence, Colo. The federal government, including DHS, Justice and the Pentagon, will work with state and local authorities to "identify and mitigate" any security risks, the letter states.

Federal inmates and Guantanamo detainees will have "no opportunity to interact," the administration states in its letter to Quinn.

There are currently 210 detainees held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Only one has been transferred to a U.S. facility so far while 30 detainees have been transferred to other countries since Obama signed the executive order on Jan. 22, 2009 directing the closure of the detention center.

"Closing the detention center at Guantanamo is essential to protecting our national security and helping our troops by removing a deadly recruiting tool from the hands of al Qaeda," a senior administration official said on Monday night.

This official called the announcement "an important step forward as we work to achieve our national security objectives."

Burris welcomed the announcement and cited the economic benefits to the state if the Thomson facility were up and running.

"I have full confidence that the facility will hold these terrorism suspects safely and securely," Burris said. "At a time when Illinois is struggling with 11 percent unemployment, this transfer will be a great economic benefit to the state by creating over 3,000 well paying-jobs and bringing in valuable federal dollars to fund local facility operations."

Last month, the Council of Economic Advisers released an economic analysis of job creation if the federal government took over Thomson facility to house detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay.

Gitmo Detainee Transfer to State Prison Creates State Jobs

Over the first four years, the CEA assessment stated, the facility would create 840 to 910 temporary jobs and 3,180 to 3,880 ongoing jobs, increasing local payrolls by $793 million to $1.15 billion.

"Approximately 80 percent of all of the jobs created by the facility will be held by people residing in Illinois, while people in Iowa will fill the remaining jobs," the study stated. "These jobs could reduce the unemployment rate in Carroll County, Illinois, where Thomson is located, by 2 to 4 percentage points."

Jonathan Whitney, publisher of the Carroll County Review said most people in the community were welcoming today's announcement for exactly that reason.

"Anytime you put this kind of engine, economic engine in here, it spills over, it mushrooms," Whitney told ABC News. "I think it's a quality of life issue and I don't think they're overly worried about security."

Thomson residents cited the potential boost to the local economy as their reason for supporting Thomson's use for the Guantanamo detainees and other federal inmates.

"I have no ill feelings about it. I think it's fine. I think it will help the economy of Thomson," said Margaret Wilt. Alan Root hopes that the decision will bring businesses back to Thomson.

"There's not a whole lot of businesses left in Thomson. No grocery store or anything," Root told ABC News. "Maybe it will do something, you know, bring back some business back like it used to be."

Republicans were skeptical. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted sarcastically that if the estimate is from the CEA, "the same crowd who nailed the projection that the stimulus would keep the unemployment rate under 8 percent, I'm sure it will be right on target."

According to information from the state of Illinois, the facility has 1,600 cells and eight housing units, none of which are currently used. Thomson sits on 146 acres and is currently surrounded by a 12-foot exterior fence and 15-foot interior fence -- which includes a dual-sided electric stun fence.

The cell houses were constructed with pre-cast, reinforced cement walls. The complex also contains a 200-bed minimum-security unit, which has been operational.

In recent weeks, Thomson Correctional Center emerged as the leading contender to house detainees currently being held at Guantanamo Bay.

The administration had not confirmed its plans but last Friday it acknowledged that a leaked memo, laying out instructions to the Departments of Justice and Defense to begin the transfer of detainees, was authentic. But administration officials insisted it was just a "draft, predecisional document" and no final decision had been made.

Thomson Detainees to be Tried by Military Tribunal

The detainees transferred from Guantanamo to Thomson will not be tried in civilian courts. These detainees will be tried by military tribunal, held for indefinite detention or transferred to other countries.

The detainees from Guantanamo that will be tried in civilian courts will be imprisoned in the jurisdictions in which they will be tried (i.e. the Southern District of New York).

There are currently dozens of prisoners in maximum security facilities in the United States who have been convicted of terrorism-related charges, including Omar Abdel-Rahman, Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid, Theodore Kaczynski, Terry Nichols, Ramzi Yousef, Ahmed Ressam, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, and Wadih el-Hage.

In May, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that putting Guantanamo detainees in U.S. prisons could be dangerous.

"There is a potential for radicalization in a number of ways, whether it be for gang activity, for terrorist groups, for other extremists," he said in congressional testimony.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events