Local Pols Welcome Gitmo Prisoners, Residents Say 'Not So Fast'

Local Michigan residents skittish as Feds tour prison site.

STANDISH, Mich., Aug. 14, 2009 — -- Though local politicians support the idea, residents of Standish, Mich., are wary of the possibility that their town could be chosen by the Obama administration to house the U.S. detainees currently being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On Thursday, officials from the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon and the Department of Justice toured the Standish Maximum Security Prison as a possible site for housing U.S. detainees when the administration closes the controversial detention facility.

With the Standish prison set to close this fall as part of budget cuts in Michigan, the mayor of Standish has welcomed the idea of moving the Gitmo detainees to the area to keep the prison open and save hundreds of jobs.

But many residents say saving jobs at the prison is not worth bringing terror suspects into their backyard.

"It's scary. The unknown is scary. You're being told you're going to have terrorists in your community, and that's a little frightening," said Jeri Harris, a marketing director who has lived in the area for nine years.

Harris fears that the small town of 1,500 people could become the target of a terrorist attack.

"If someone decided to bomb the prison because the detainees were in them, I live not that far away," she said. "And if something were to happen, that would be awful."

Local officials like state representative Tim Moore, a Republican, have embraced moving the detainees to Michigan to give the local economy a boost. With the nation's highest unemployment rate, 15 percent, Michigan has seen some of the worst economic distress in the country.

Arenac County, where Standish is located, has an unemployment rate of 17 percent. The prison is the biggest employer in the city, with 300 jobs, and Moore has said the entire county would become an economic "ghost town" if the prison shut down.

For more than 50 years, Joseph Varadi's tire shop has stood on US-23, which runs through Standish. Varadi said the economy for the city is worse than he's ever seen it. But he, like so many residents, doesn't think the economic concerns outweigh the security ones.

"I don't really care for this too much," Varadi said. "If they let some of the detainees go, do they just wander around the city? Where do they go?"

Guards' Union Wary of Detainees

Even the union that represents Michigan's corrections officers opposes bringing Gitmo detainees to Standish.

"There are just too many things that could go wrong," said Tom Kerrins, the chief steward of the organization. "The problem I have is ... you almost are putting a bullseye on the whole entire area."

Trials for terrorism suspects would also be held at the site of the prison, and Kerrins said he worries that some group might try to disrupt the proceedings.

And it's not just security that has the union concerned, the members also are worried about their jobs.

"They're going to use their own people," said Kerrins, explaining his fear that federal officials will take away all the jobs of the corrections officers currently working at Standish.

Paul Piche, who has been an officer at Standish for 19 years, also worried about local guards losing their jobs.

"If the feds just want to come in and take over and put employees out on the curb, no, it's going to be strongly opposed," Piche said.

California and Pennsylvania have talked with Michigan about sending some of their prisoners to Standish, and Piche said he would support the Gitmo detainees coming to Michigan if other states could send prisoners, too.

It seems the Standish residents' concerns haven't fallen on deaf ears. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., on Thursday released a statement saying he would ask the Defense and Justice departments to lead a delegation to Guantanamo Bay to understand the circumstances and challenges of moving the detainees to Michigan.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the Standish visit by government officials "preliminary."

"No final decision about any of this has been made," he said.

Government officials also will soon tour the military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as they continue their search for the right place and the right community to house some of the world's most dangerous suspects.