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THE NATION : From Guantanamo to Illinois? : A rural prison is 'a leading option' for housing detainees.

November 14, 2009|Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — A near-empty prison in rural Illinois has emerged as "a leading option" to house terrorism suspects currently held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an Obama administration official said Friday.

As they work to shutter the controversial detention center, federal officials are talking to Illinois officials about buying the Thomson Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison about 150 miles west of Chicago.

A unit of the facility would be used to house the Guantanamo detainees, who now number about 215.

"This has emerged as a leading option," an Obama administration official said late Friday night, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

The official wouldn't say how many of the detainees could be transferred to Illinois, describing it only as a "limited number."

The official also wouldn't say whether the administration envisions Thomson as the sole domestic prison for former Guantanamo detainees.

Officials are contemplating the details, including how they would persuade Congress to change a law that bars Guantanamo detainees from being moved to the U.S. except for trial.

Officials in a handful of towns around the country have expressed interest in hosting such a federal prison -- a prospect some remote areas welcome as a means of economic development at a time of hardship.

The Mississippi River town of Thomson, on the Illinois border with Iowa, has suffered more than most.

In 2001, the state completed construction of the $145-million complex, a maximum-security institution to house its most dangerous inmates.

A tightening state budget crisis, however, has left the prison practically unused for eight years. The prison has 1,600 cells yet holds only 144 inmates.

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cparsons@latimes.com

Julian E. Barnes of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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