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Obama administration moves forward on Illinois prison purchase

A Justice Department letter says the government will buy the facility this year and plans to hire and train employees. The prison would house federal inmates if Congress rejects a plan to move terrorism detainees there.

June 22, 2010|By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • A Justice Department official says the near-empty Thomson facility could still house high-security federal inmates if lawmakers reject it as a new home for Guantanamo detainees.
A Justice Department official says the near-empty Thomson facility could… (M. Spencer Green /Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration will purchase a prison in rural Illinois even if Congress rejects the president's plan to lock up terrorism suspects there, a key official at the Justice Department said Monday.

Lawmakers are threatening to scotch Obama's proposal to move terrorism detainees to the unused state prison, a crucial part of his plan to shut down the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Even if lawmakers make good on that threat, a letter from the Justice Department suggests, the federal government would simply use the facility to hold federal inmates.

Writing to members of the Illinois congressional delegation, Assistant Atty. Gen. Ronald Weich reaffirmed the administration's "commitment to acquiring the facility this year," and provided details about steps planned for the next few months.

The letter represented the first time the administration had confirmed plans to move ahead with the prison purchase.

The Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons plans to hire and train employees while other administration officials work with lawmakers on questions involving the Guantanamo detainees, Weich wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the Tribune Washington Bureau.

President Obama moved to shut down the controversial Guantanamo prison shortly after taking office, saying it had become a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment around the world and was a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.

Closing the prison has been difficult, however, as members of Congress decline to grant approval for transferring the Guantanamo detainees.

Also, in recent weeks, House lawmakers have moved to block the use of federal funds for modifying the Illinois prison so it can accommodate the detainees.

However, that measure did not prohibit use of federal funding to actually buy the prison. Monday's letter indicates the Justice Department wants to keep the option alive as negotiations continue with congressional leaders.

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