Small Illinois town willing to be next Guantanamo

President Obama wants to ship Guantanamo Bay detainees to a rural Illinois state prison. Why are locals welcoming the detainees?

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted February 17, 2010 at 4:54 pm EST

Thomson, Ill. — As in many small towns, pride here comes in small doses: the single stoplight that hangs in nearby Savanna, the only one in the county; or the fact that Thomson is known as the “melon capital of the world” for its prodigious crop of summer’s sweetest treat.

Quaint particulars like those are about to be upended in this Mississippi River town with a turn of events guaranteed to put it on the world map – and possibly save an area that is among those hit the hardest by the nation’s economic decline.

President Obama wants to ship Guantánamo Bay detainees to the Thomson Correctional Center, a nine-year-old underutilized state prison in northwest Illinois, making it the federal prison system’s second “Supermax” facility.

At an eight-hour hearing in late December at a high school auditorium in nearby Sterling, Ill., political leaders grilled state and federal officials and took public comments on whether the sale of the facility to the US Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Defense would be a good deal – would guarantee the 3,000 jobs and $1 billion in development announced in the planning.

People also pressed officials, in the words of state Sen. Matt Murphy (R), for guarantees that “Al Qaeda will not use Thomson in the future as a recruiting tool.”

The refrain from federal officials focused on the local benefits.

Of the 850 to 900 staff positions at the prison, 60 percent will be local, said Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Mr. Lappin added that he estimates 1,200 to 1,700 private-sector jobs will be created as a result of prison activity – “all indirect ways the prison will create jobs and reduce unemployment.”

In January, a state commission approved closing the facility; now appraisals will be made to negotiate a price, says Marlena Jentz, spokeswoman for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D).

Aside from that, congressional approval is needed to transfer the prisoners to US soil.

Jay Alan Liotta, principal director of the Defense Department’s office of detainee policy, said the 198 Guantánamo prisoners will be either transferred to their home country, sent to stand trial in New York City, or selected for military tribunals here.

“No timeline has been set,” Mr. Liotta said, for the prison’s opening.

Once the sale is final, the prison will be fortified with a second perimeter, Lappin says. The prison would also house 1,600 federal inmates, but “there will be no contact between them and the detainees,” he said. (Today, only about 144 minimum-­security prisoners are at the facility.)

Liotta called Guantánamo “a recruitment tool” for terrorist organizations and said its closure and the subsequent transfer of detainees to Thomson will eliminate it as a stigma for “people who have not yet made up their mind about Al Qaeda.”

Activists from local “tea party” and veterans’ groups denounce the idea of bringing 100 to 150 terrorist detainees here, which they say would be a threat to national security and an insult to those fighting the war on terror.

Some say risk outweighs benefit

“Not one job [gained from the prison move] is worth losing one American life,” says Beverly Perlson, founder of the Band of Mothers, a group advocating for troops who’ve served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mrs. Perlson, who lives about 115 miles away in Aurora, Ill., calls the Thomson site “an easy target” for terrorists to attack.

“They couldn’t get close to Gitmo, but they can get close to this place,” she says. “My mind goes on and on with the problems, the dangerousness of what they want to do.”

But for many residents in Thomson and the surrounding towns of Carroll County (population 15,841), economics outweighs the fear of the unknown regarding Guantánamo prisoners.

Rural beauty may draw Chicago tourists to drive two hours to hike the palisades in the local state park or go antiquing in downtown Savanna, but the local economy is in peril.

In 2009, unemployment rose to 11.6 percent. Nursing homes, school districts, tourism, and retail businesses are taking up some of the slack that manufacturing and local agriculture left behind. For Bonnie Foust, village president of Shannon, the prospect of a federal prison jump-starting the economy is “better than nothing.”

Ms. Foust says the main concern her constituents have is that their county will continue to decline – a reality she says trumps imagined fears that come with lodging suspected terrorists in their backyard.

“We have lived under fear for so many years – the fear of everything. I have people afraid of losing homes, afraid of losing jobs, and those are very tangible and very real things at this moment,” she says.

Carroll County is not just starved economically; it’s aging – and fast.

Norman Walzer, a senior research scholar at the Center for Gov­ern­mental Studies at Northern Illinois Uni­ver­sity, says that while the county population declined 5 percent between 2000 and 2009, there was a 20.9 percent drop in residents under 20 and a 24 percent drop among those ages 30 to 44 – a snapshot of young families with children moving elsewhere in their prime working years.

In Lanark, a bucolic town marked by vacant homes and many elderly residents, J.L. and Kim Hunter say their own children and those of others have no choice but to move away once they reach adulthood.

“There’s no jobs around here for young people,” says J.L., who works at Honeywell as a design technician.

Kim, a secretary at a home for the developmentally disabled, says she “definitely will check into” job opportunities at the Thomson prison.

“Being a federal prison, I would guess wages and benefits would be pretty good,” she says.

Both say any stigma of relying on a prison for jobs is beside the point. “Not only will it bring jobs, all these people will move here to work,” says Kim. “We have a lot of empty houses here in Carroll County. If people move in, they’ll buy these empty houses.”

Few people have more interest in how the prison may affect businesses than Beaver Miller, co-owner of a Dairy Queen, a BP gas station, a local housing subdivision, and WCCI-FM, the local radio station in Savanna. He says it’s unfair to stigmatize correctional facilities.

“Personally, I’d feel safer being here than being 200 miles away from it. I don’t think the fear factor is real legitimate,” he says.

“We need a shot in the arm,” he says, noting that the facility would help the local tax base. “If it’s going to come to America, why not us?”

To outsiders, the solitude of the upper Mississippi Valley may seem like an unusual choice for a prison expected to hold some of the most notorious detainees in the war on terror. Rolling farmland bounds the area to the west while the downtown sidewalks of Mount Carroll and Savanna offer quaint eateries for the bed-and-breakfast weekender.

Long history of aiding nation

But as only longtime residents know, Carroll County’s history in aiding the country in wartime dates back 93 years. It is home to Savanna Army Depot, a Defense Department facility that opened in 1917 to test, manufacture, and store munitions during both world wars up through the Gulf War. At its height of activity during World War II, the depot employed 7,000 people, but when the Defense Department shuttered it in 2000, just 423 people still worked there.

“Without understanding the nature of rural areas, it’s harder to understand the devastating impact of [losing] 423 jobs,” says Diane Komiskey, executive director of the Savanna Depot Park, which is trying to lure economic development.

Ms. Komiskey says the prison would be right in line with the area’s heritage in helping the war effort.

“I don’t think you can underestimate the patriotism here,” she says. “The fear we’ve heard expressed by some individuals is not shared by the region because they know we’ve been a target for years.”

Komiskey laments the fact that both her children left the area to find work: “Our best export is our kids. The saying here is, ‘It’s the thing we produce the best.’ Unfortunately, we’re exporting them.”

But she is hesitant to cheer the pending prison sale because so much has to happen before the prison is updated and open for business.

That tentativeness is shared by Paul Fritz, a pastor at the United Methodist Church in Thomson. He says some people expanded their businesses with hopes the state prison would generate new traffic to town – only to see their investments hit a wall when the prison sat mostly empty due to lack of state funding.

“They built it and then didn’t allocate any funds to run the thing, so most people are in a wait-and-see mode,” he says. “Until the ink is dry and the federal government is going to buy it, we don’t have a whole lot of confidence that anything will happen until we see it happen.”

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