By Katie Dahlstrom
Herald Staff Writer
THOMSON, Ill. —
After three years of talks, the Obama administration has purchased the Thomson Correctional Center from the state of Illinois for $165 million, sidestepping the objections from the veteran Virginia congressman who had blocked the sale.
“It is a long journey to this moment,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon at Thomson Village Hall with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Thomson Village Board President Jerry Hebeler.
“We got together and said, ‘we’re going to get this done.’ We ran into some obstacles and problems along the way. It took a little longer on the state level than we thought it would, but we got that done. We got the price agreed to and now we’re going to move forward to make this a federal prison and its going to be one of the best in America.”
According to officials, at the direction of President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons filed paperwork Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Rockford to finalize the $165 million transfer of the Thomson prison to the federal system.
The funds to purchase the 1,600-bed maximum security prison, Durbin said, came from money that was allocated to other projects that were never completed.
The sale bypasses the vehement opposition of veteran Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virgina, who chairs a House appropriations committee on prison spending.
Wolf had long blocked the sale due to concerns the Obama administration would not keep its word not to use the facility to house suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay. Wolf criticized the Obama administration’s decision following the purchase Tuesday, calling the $165 million “windfall” to Obama’s home state weeks before the election, “suspect.”
“President Obama’s unprecedented directive to Attorney General Holder to circumvent Congress to purchase Thomson prison is deeply troubling,” Wolf said in a statement. “It directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire.”
Durbin, Quinn and Hebeler on Tuesday lauded the opening of the prison, which they said will create more than 1,100 jobs when it is fully operational, generate more than $122 million in operating expenditures, $19 million in labor income and $61 million in local business sales.
“It’s going to help the business in town here and all around. People are going to be buying homes and cars and they’re going to be putting a breath of life into the economy,” Durbin said. “It is going to be one of the best federal penitentiaries in America. Creating good jobs and keeping America safe.”
The prison was constructed for $140 million in 2001 by the state of Illinois to house the most severe criminal offenders. However, the majority of the prison was never occupied and sat vacant for many years due to the state’s lack of funds to operate it. In May 2009 Hebeler began discussions with Durbin, which lead to the federal government’s interest in the facility.
The prison will need some upgrades to bring it to current federal standards, the funds for which need to be appropriated. Following the upgrades, the prison will be opened, Durbin said.
However, Durbin and a representative from the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not have a timeline for the opening. In the meantime, there will be active solicitation of applicants to staff the prison.
“We’re grateful to all the people in Illinois and Iowa who are going to be working here. This is an opportunity for hardworking people,” Quinn said.