A prison in Thomson, Ill., captured the world attention’s a year ago when White House officials called it a top candidate for housing terror suspects detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Today, says the Chicago Tribune, the 1,600-cell correctional center in northwest Illinois is empty. Federal officials still want to buy it – if only for use as a penitentiary – but the prospect of what critics assailed as “Gitmo North” appears a long shot.
Thomson’s transformation into a federal penitentiary, at a potential cost of $237 million, is on hold until Congress approves the money. Should the sale go through, it would take five to eight months to upgrade security features and open for business. Under the original plan, the federal Bureau of Prisons would have bought Thomson and housed federal inmates there, with some space given to the Defense Department to confine terrorism suspects. In Thomson, a community of 522, Village President Jerry “Duke” Hebeler said residents are so hard-pressed to find jobs that he prays constantly for the federal government to buy the prison. Unemployment in surrounding Carroll County was 10 percent in September. Troubled almost from the start, the Thomson prison opened in 2001, soon fell victim to state budget woes, and accepted a token number of inmates beginning in 2006. Even if Thomson is used only for convicted felons, its purchase price could be a sticking point.