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A deal is a deal: U.S. will buy prison even if it won’t hold terror suspects

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration plans to buy a state prison in rural Thomson, regardless of whether Congress allows terrorism suspects to be transferred there, a Justice Department official said Thursday.

The plan was outlined in a letter to U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Egan, who supports turning Thomson Correctional Center into a federal prison but opposes holding detainees there.

In the letter, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich spelled out the administration’s intent to go ahead with plans to buy the nearly empty prison, even if lawmakers refuse to approve its use as a new home for detainees at the military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

At the least, Weich said, the federal Bureau of Prisons intends to use the facility for high-security inmates.

Manzullo has voiced support for opening Thomson as a federal prison because it would provide jobs for the area but has said he has “serious reservations” about moving terrorist suspects there.

“We’re happy as long as they don’t bring the detainees here,” said his spokesman, Rich Carter.

The Department of Justice has asked for $237 million in next year’s budget to buy and begin operating the prison. It has the option of requesting funds sooner to upgrade security and prepare the prison for its intended use.

President Barack Obama has directed the agency to buy the site “to fulfill both of the goals of reducing federal prison overcrowding and transferring a limited number of detainees out of Guantanamo,” Weich wrote in the letter.

The Thomson prison is crucial to Obama’s plan to shut down Guantanamo, which administration officials consider a recruiting tool for anti-American extremists worldwide.

But the department “would be seeking to purchase the facility in Thomson even if detainees were not being considered for transfer there,” the letter says.

Such an assurance could ease some objections to the purchase by members of Congress. Some are worried about the political and security fallout of moving terrorism suspects to a domestic site. Unless Congress changes current law, however, Guantanamo inmates couldn’t be transferred to the U.S. for any purpose other than trial.

The prospect of a downsized plan could concern local and state officials, who are anxious for the jobs that would come with expanded use of the facility.

The Defense Department’s operation would involve one-third of the prison’s space, although the number of Guantanamo detainees who would be moved there is uncertain. White House officials say only that they will keep the number of Guantanamo transfers “in the range of” 100.

The Bureau of Prisons would use most of the prison and require 895 staff members, according to another letter, sent Thursday from the Department of Justice to U.S. Sen. Dick  Durbin, D-Ill.

The number is of great interest to local officials, who had hoped the state prison would bring jobs to the area. Because of budget constraints, however, the state has never been able to bring the prison into full operation.

Durbin is an avid supporter of the Thomson project, as is Gov. Pat Quinn..

“This sale of the facility, which is estimated to create up to 3,800 jobs and more than $1 billion of Illinois economic activity during just its first four years of operation, has been wholeheartedly endorsed by people and communities throughout northwest Illinois,” Quinn spokeswoman Marlena Jentz said in a statement.

The governor urges Congress to approve the funds the Obama administration has requested to acquire Thomson.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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