THOMSON – The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is ready to start the process of opening the Thomson prison as a federal facility, officials told local residents Thursday.
That would mean it could take inmates by 2015.
The only problem: getting the money.
That’s a big one, given the differences between the Republican House and the Democratic Senate over the federal budget.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, met Thursday with about 40 people at a local school for a briefing on the prison.
More than a dozen years ago, the state built the maximum-security prison in this Carroll County town along the Mississippi River, but couldn’t afford to run it.
The federal government bought it last year. When it opens, it is expected to employ 1,100 people and have a regional economic impact that extends into Whiteside, Lee and Ogle counties.
For Thomson residents, though, promises are nothing new.
“We’ve heard the same story before,” village Trustee Les Mitchell said after the meeting. “We’re going on 13 years. It’s always been, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it.’ Of course, that was always the state before.”
Durbin knew residents were skeptical, telling them he wanted to give “fair warning.”
He then got into the details of Washington budget maneuvers. Officially, the federal government needs a new budget by the start of the next fiscal year, Oct. 1.
But Durbin and most observers expect a continuing budget resolution, which would keep spending at current levels.
“We’ll deal with a continuing resolution for days or weeks – I hope not months,” he said.
In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved spending $166 million to activate Thomson and two other prisons, which officials say would alleviate overcrowding in the prison system.
Bustos said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., is reaching out to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., so they can meet with Bustos about the prison.
Wolf used his House committee post to try to prevent the federal government from buying the Thomson prison. Last fall, President Obama bypassed Wolf by committing “unobligated” funds to the project.
Durbin and Bustos said Wolf still is working to block Thomson from opening. They said they are trying to change the congressman’s mind, but are uncertain whether they’ll succeed.
“The federal government now owns the prison. Now the question is whether we’ll use it,” the senator said. “Our argument is stronger today than ever. If we can’t persuade [Wolf], we’ll go around him.”
Bill Dalius, a top official in the Bureau of Prisons, attended Thursday’s meeting, saying his agency was committed to opening the prison.
Once the president signs a budget that includes the Thomson money, Dalius said, “We will move quickly.”
That means hiring 300 people in the first year and most of the rest the second year, he said. About half of the employees of a new facility typically come from outside the immediate area, he said.
“It’s a high priority for the Bureau of Prisons,” Dalius said. “Nothing else is under construction anywhere. A facility like this is a great need for the Bureau of Prisons.”
The officials were asked how the federal government might help with issues such as available housing because of an expected increase in the local population.
Bustos and Durbin said the local communities could address such issues.
“That’s the least of my worries,” Bustos said. “This area is up to the challenge.”