Empty Prison in Struggling Illinois Town Might Be Next Gitmo

As the Obama Administration looks at transferring "detainees" from Guantanamo Bay to a prison facility within the continental US, a political furor has erupted that pits economically devastated rural America against the fear-mongering of metropolitan Republicans intent on covering their collective asses and reclaiming their lost mantle of power.

The Chicago Tribune reported last week that "a near-empty prison in rural Illinois has emerged as 'a leading option' to house suspected terrorists from Guatanamo [sic] Bay -- an idea welcomed by people in the tiny river town of Thomson but sharply criticized by Republicans in Congress."

House Republican Donald Manzullo acknowledged 'extraordinary unemployment' in northwestern Illinois--he put the rate at 17 percent--but added: "The issue is: 'Are you going to exchange the promise of jobs for national security?' National security trumps everything. That's the safety of the people.

The lawmaker, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was concerned that "al-Qaida would follow al-Qaida" to northwestern Illinois if Thomson became the prison to replace Guantanamo Bay....

...House Republican Mark Kirk of Northbrook, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, is circulating a sharply worded letter among the state's congressional delegation and state officials, urging the White House not to transfer suspected terrorists to the prison.

If your administration brings al-Qaida terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago metropolitan area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization,' Kirk, a five-term congressman, wrote in the letter to President Barack Obama.

Beyond Republican histrionics about a wave of jihad descending upon Chicago, the truth of the matter is far closer to the desire of Republicans to keep the extralegal limbo at Guantanamo going full steam. The last thing any of them want is to have detainees tried in civilian criminal courts, which is what is happening right now in New York with Kalid Sheik Mohammed, the 9/11 patsy the government wants us to believe was the sole criminal "mastermind" behind the attacks.

A trial in a civilian criminal court would permit the detainees to testify in open court. It would call for witnesses, a real prosecution that had to prove its case, a defense for the accused, and real evidence that, for example, Kalid Sheik Mohamed was the actual "mastermind," or that some of these suspected "terrorists" might be just peasants who were turned over to the American forces by Afghan warlords looking for payouts. It would require shining lights into "the dark side, the shadows" that Dick Cheney told us we'd have to go mucking about in, and where, no doubt, much evil was done. A criminal trial would name names, and that's not anything the complicit members of our government want. No way, not now, not nevah.

Perhaps this objection was why, on the heels of the first announcement, came a second that stated that "in addition to housing foreign detainees, [the Thomson] prison could become a site for military trials of those charged with acts of terrorism, an administration official acknowledged Monday."

Gitmo in the Heartland, complete with tribunals. Quaint in a kind of American Gothic way. And yet another of Obama's campaign promises broken.

As for the people of Thomson, IL, their fate has been in a similar limbo for most of this decade. Rural Illinois has been devastated by deindustrialization and the consolidation of farming by Big Agro. The new prison in Thomson was supposed to bring an economic boom to the area. But the prison never opened, and seven years after its completion, stands empty due to Illinois' crippling budget crises.

I have written about the Thomson Correctional Center on a few occasions, and it is discussed in my forthcoming book, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics, & Spirituality, which will begin serialization on Reality Sandwich next month.

This background on Thomson is taken from my 2005 feature in The Next American City, "A Sorry Excuse for a Decent Living - How Rural Illinois Staked its Revival on Prison Growth":

Thompson, a small Mississippi River town in northwestern Illinois, spent the 1980s and 1990s in economic freefall. An Army depot located fifteen miles to the north employed 400 people in the town until it shut down in the early-'90s. An International Paper plant employed a couple hundred more until it closed around the same time. In search of new economic development opportunities, town leaders turned to one of the few growth industries in rural Illinois: prison construction.

Historically, Thompson and Carroll County have run the 2nd to 4th highest unemployment rate in the state," says Village President Merri Jo Enloe. The main reason we built a prison was because everyone needed a job.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) has an annual budget of $1.3 billion and employs around 22,000 people in 26 prisons, 6 work camps, 2 boot camps, and 25 fully staffed parole offices. Building a prison brought Thompson $210,000 in Economic Development Administration grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce, $110,000 from the Illinois Department of Transportation to upgrade roads to the prison, a grant from the Interstate Commerce Commission to upgrade rail crossings, and a very lucrative local water and sewage contract worth roughly $615,000 annually to serve the prison.

The village of Thompson is also permitted to add the 1,800 residents of the prison to their population count. Since the Village receives $110 a year per resident from the state as a reimbursement on taxes paid, the prison population increases town revenue by another $200,000-a lucrative bonus to a town with a municipal budget of $328,000. Most importantly, the prison promises to deliver 750 permanent jobs.

A lucrative deal, if it would have ever been honored. Attempts to shut down older prisons in the Illinois system and move the inmates to brand spankin' new Thomson exploded into a political firefight because the personnel would not be moved along with the prisoners, thus, jobs lost in one region even if gained in another. This is how valuable prison jobs are in Illinois, when you can't shut down a prison even if you want to. And in California, the most powerful political lobby is the prison guards union.

Prison expansion, and the "correctional economy", are predicated on there being a limitless harvest of offenders to keep the prison well-stocked. Discussed in the opening sections of "A Sorry Excuse" and in great detail in Exile Nation, this supply of human livestock has been the function of the War on Drugs for forty years, which has been one of America's best performing growth industries.

At the time I wrote the story, according to the Office for National Drug Control Policy, the United States was spending $30 billion a year combating the War on Drugs, and over $4 billion incarcerating drug offenders. That funding fueled the growth of the prison economy in 400 places across America where new state prisons have opened in the past 25 years. The federal government went on an equally manic building spree, and the substantial majority of federal inmates have drug convictions.

But ever since the collapse of the economy, as states were pushed further into budgetary strangleholds, the costs of maintaining such a bloated prison economy began to appear unnecessary, in their most benign interpretation, and profligate, in their worst, as in the case of California, which has to release over 10,000 non-violent offenders they can no longer afford to keep incarcerated, or Illinois, where they can't afford to keep open the prisons they have built.

Ironically, despite all the manna from heaven that was dangled in the faces of the residents of Thompson, there was some local resistance to opening a prison in their community based in age-old divisions:

Describing some of the initial resistance to the prison, Enloe said: "This is a predominantly white area, and there was a lot of objection to minorities coming through the community, particularly [from] white transplants from the Chicago area who felt that the prison would bring to the community the kind of people [Black] they were trying to get away from by moving out here.

This makes it all the more peculiar that the town is now so seemingly willing to embrace Muslim "terrorists" in their midst. Have economic conditions deteriorated to the point where these types of moral and racial objections are no longer relevant to conservative America?

As one townsperson was quoted as saying, "It would help the businesses here, and God knows we could use that. It doesn't matter to me who they bring here."

The filmmaker John Sayles once quipped, "Nothing like seeing a prejudice defeated by an even deeper prejudice." In Thomson, and many communities like it all across impoverished rural America, fear of poverty, naturally, seems to trump fear of the Other, or an attack on Main Street, USA.

But any way you look at it, a prison job in a low wage replacement economy is no victory, and further proof of just how far astray America has veered. That we are even having this debate in the first place is the real tragedy.