Thursday, March 31, 2011

End delays on sale of Thomson prison

By Daily Herald Editorial Board

Apparently, only one thing remains to hold up the sale of the little-used state penitentiary in Thomson to the federal government: Assurance from the president that it will not be used to house suspected terrorists from Guantanamo.

So, come on, Mr. President. How about saying the word so this deal can be done and everyone can move on?

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin told reporters on Monday that a deal for the maximum security prison in northwest Illinois is nearly complete.

“The federal government needs more prison space. The State of Illinois has a surplus prison. It works,” Durbin said.

So, the only question remaining is why isn’t it working?

Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, and Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, recently wrote the U.S. attorney general seeking assurances that the prison won’t house Gitmo detainees, and, joined by other Republicans, Kirk reiterated the call in a letter to President Obama after a tour of the site last week.

The story of the Thomson prison, unfortunately, is all too familiar in Illinois politics. Built in 2001 at a cost of $120 million after a complicated series of political and turf disputes, the state-of-the-art compound has never been used for its intended purpose. In the national and state economic downturn that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the state ran out of money to staff and operate the prison, so now it’s paying millions of dollars a year just to keep the facility operable in the event of a sale.

That possibility first emerged nearly a year and a half ago, when the Obama administration announced it was thinking of buying the Thomson penitentiary and using it to house transferees from Guantanamo. The proposal stirred a nationwide furor and was eventually shelved, but the controversy renewed the public’s awareness of the prison, and the possibility remained for a sale to house federal inmates who are not terrorists.

An Associated Press report said the prison has been valued at around $220 million, about $50 million more than Obama has asked Congress for. So, no doubt, some squabbling over price may still be going on in addition to the wait for the government’s promise.

In the grand tradition of real estate negotiations, we don’t want to sound too eager, but the project is said to mean more than 1,000 jobs in a region desperate for work. The Thomson penitentiary by itself won’t solve Illinois’ unemployment crisis, and even if it sells for $200 million or more, it will barely make a dent in the multibillion-dollar budget deficit the state faces.

But it’s a good start. And if the only thing holding it up is a promise from the president not to do something that’s not going to happen anyway, what’s the holdup?

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