The Illinois Department of Corrections finished building the Thomson Correctional Center in November 2001.
For much of the 11 years since then, the maximum-security prison sat empty, its promise of hundreds of jobs for area residents unfulfilled.
Those frustrating days appear to be over.
Tuesday’s announcement by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn should pave the way for the prison’s opening as a federal lockup.
Durbin and Quinn announced that the federal government has bought the prison for $165 million.
More money – $40 million to $50 million – will be spent to upgrade the penitentiary to federal standards.
Then it will open, generating 1,100 jobs for the region.
That will be a huge economic boost to Carroll County, northwestern Illinois and eastern Iowa – the kind of boost that Gov. Jim Edgar envisioned when he announced plans in 1998 to build the prison. The hope was that prison jobs would make up for the loss of employment when the Savanna Army Depot closed.
No one knew then that Illinois’ worsening budget crisis would prevent the prison’s opening, or that politics would play the role that it did in delaying the empty prison’s transfer to the federal government.
Two months ago, we noted in an editorial that U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, was holding up the prison’s sale. Wolf, chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that funds the Bureau of Prisons, had several objections.
Wolf said he feared the Obama administration would move terrorism suspects to Thomson from the Guantanamo Bay detention center – even though the Obama administration promised not to do so.
Wolf also pointed out that it would be unfair for the federal government to buy the Thomson prison when prisons in other states had been waiting for their funding for a longer period of time.
Wolf played his stalling game for more than a year. Now, Durbin and President Barack Obama have shown that they were up to the challenge.
Durbin said he urged the president to designate money left over from the previous fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, to make the purchase. Such a maneuver would circumvent the Wolf that stood in the way.
So that’s how the stalled sale became unstalled.
And that’s why hundreds of federal prison jobs are a step closer to reality.
Area Republican lawmakers were not invited to speak at Tuesday’s news conference, but they hailed the sale as a positive development.
Only Rep. Wolf, stung by being outfoxed by Durbin and Obama, complained.
We learned long ago not to get our hopes up when politicians travel to Thomson and hold news conferences about the prison.
When the prison is refurbished, when the employees have been hired, and when the prison opens, then we’ll heave a sigh of relief.
Finally, the unfulfilled promises will be history.
Finally, the political games will be at an end.