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Done deal: Feds to buy Thomson prison from state for $165 million

The interior cell block ThomsCorrectional Thomson. (AP Photo/The Dispatch Todd Mizener File)

The interior of a cell block at the Thomson Correctional in Thomson. (AP Photo/The Dispatch, Todd Mizener, File)

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:17AM

SPRINGFIELD — The Obama administration and Gov. Pat Quinn have mapped out an end-run around the GOP that will enable the state to unload the long-mothballed Thomson Correctional Center for $165 million, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s office confirmed Tuesday.

The federal government will pay that amount to convert the facility, built in the 1990s but never opened because the state couldn’t afford to staff it, into a maximum-security prison.

That conversion will give the state’s battered treasury an unexpected windfall and pump 1,000 prison jobs and several hundred construction jobs into northwestern Illinois.

“This prison they spent a lot of money on and hoped to use as an economic engine in the area is now going to become a federal prison,” Sen. Dick Durbin told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Durbin emphasized that a plan once envisioned by President Barack Obama’s administration to transfer terrorism detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Thomson has been abandoned, and that those housed at the new federal prison will be domestic criminals.

“This argument they can move Guantanamo detainees in the future there is completely false for the following reason: We’ve signed these treaties with countries around the world, and one of them is you don’t put military prisoners in anything other than a military prison,” Durbin said.

House Republicans in Washington, D.C., balked at the acquisition, fearing the prison somehow would in fact house Guantanamo detainees and refusing to sign off on its purchase. At a news conference Tuesday announcing the purchase, Durbin said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has testified under oath before Congress that the prisoners won’t be transferred, but GOP opponents still couldn’t be convinced.

Funds for the acquisition are coming from already appropriated dollars in the Department of Justice’s budget and not the Defense Department, which has the sole authority to construct and maintain military prisons, Durbin said.

The deal was finalized with paperwork filed Tuesday in federal district court in Rockford. While money for new construction at the prison must still be appropriated, they said two checks to pay for the prison — one for $99 million and another for $66 million — have already been deposited.

“That’s money that’s going to come to the people of Illinois to help pay our bills,” Quinn said. “We have bills to pay. We all know that.”

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner blasted the Obama administration’s move as a “dangerous plan” to import “dangerous terrorists” to the United States.

“A majority of the American people and a bipartisan majority in Congress oppose bringing the terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay into the United States,” Boehner said. “The unilateral decision to purchase the Thomson Prison even though Congress has repeatedly opposed the Obama administration’s effort to use taxpayer funds to do so — underscores the administration’s desire to move forward and bring these detainees to U.S. soil.”

Contributing: Jon Seidel

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