The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons wants to begin hiring staff to run the Thomson prison facility in Illinois where the Obama administration plans to to hold Guantanamo Bay detainees, a top Justice Department official said Monday.
Even as the likelihood that Guantanamo Bay detainees will set foot in the facility dwindles, that appraisals of the property are underway and the Bureau of Prisons is committed to acquiring the facility this year, Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ronald Weich wrote in a letter to members of the Illinois congressional delegation.
“BOP plans to make certain modifications to the facility and hire and train a full complement of staff while the Defense Department continues to work with Congress to obtain authorization and funding for a portion of the Thomson facility,” Weich wrote in the letter dated June 21.
Bureau of Prisons Chief Harley Lappin had told the delegation that the Obama administration is moving forward with the plans. The text of the letter was posted online by the offices of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.
Weich wrote that appraisals of the property are underway and the representatives from the bureau have met with local officials and prospective job applicants. Bureau of Prisons officials plan to attend events at Illinois community colleges over the coming weeks where they will take job applications and run resume workshops, Weich told the members of Congress.
House lawmakers recently took steps to block the use of federal funds for the modification of Thomson, but that does not prohibit the use of federal funding to purchase the location.
The text of the letter is embedded below.
June 21, 2022
The Honorable Richard J. Durbin
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
The Honorable Donald A. Manzullo
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Senator Durbin and Congressman Manzullo:
We understand that Harley Lappin, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), recently briefed both of you and your staffs on the significant progress being made by BOP and the State of Illinois in their efforts to complete multiple steps required at the federal and state levels in order to purchase the Thomson Correctional Center. This letter reaffirms the Administration’s commitment to acquiring the facility this year and provides additional details about measures that have been taken to date and those that will be taken in the coming months. We are also forwarding a copy of this letter to Governor Quinn in light of the active, ongoing efforts of Illinois state officials on this issue.
As Director Lappin stated in his briefings to you, multiple appraisals of the facility by the federal government and the state are in progress. In addition, officials from BOP’s Capacity Planning, Facility Activation, and Site Selection Office and BOP’s North Central Regional Office have been meeting with local officials and prospective job applicants throughout the region to discuss staffing needs for operating the institution. These include meetings in Fulton, Illinois on April 21, Moline, Illinois on May 4, Freeport, Illinois on May 5, and Davenport, Iowa on May 6. Additional meetings are planned this month for application and resume workshops at Sauk Valley Community College and Black Hawk Community College.
In response to Congressman Manzullo’s request on May 24, 2010, that BOP “separate the GITMO portion of the Thomson plan and proceed with the full utilization of the Thomson Correctional Facility as a stand-alone federal prison,” we understand that Director Lappin explained that BOP will have access to the entire facility after it is acquired. BOP plans to make certain modifications to the facility and hire and train a full complement of staff while the Defense Department continues to work with Congress to obtain authorization and funding for a portion of the Thomson facility.
Building and maintaining strong relationships with communities that surround BOP institutions is an important part of our operations. Thank you for your ongoing support, and we look forward to continuing to discuss with you our plans for activating and operating the facility. Please do not hesitate to contact this office if we may be of further assistance with this or any other matter.
Assistant Attorney General
cc: The Honorable Pat Quinn
Governor of the State of Illinois
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Several left-leaning organizations on Thursday told members of the House and Senate that Congress should not allow the Justice Department to purchase a prison in Thomson, Ill., unless indefinite detention of former Guantanamo Bay detainees at the facility is banned.
The DOJ is requesting $237 million in its fiscal year 2011 budget request to purchase, set up and run the Thomson Correctional Center, which could be used for Guantanamo Bay detainees. In a letter to Congress (below), the American Civil Liberties Union and other human and civil rights groups expressed fear that the Illinois facility would be used to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without charges unless Congress prohibits the practice.
“All of our organizations strongly support the responsible closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and we would support using the Thomson facility for holding any detainees now at Guantanamo who may be charged, tried, or sentenced in federal criminal court,” the letter said. “However, we strongly oppose transporting the worst of Guantanamo policies — indefinite detention without charge or trial and military commissions — to a prison within the United States itself.”
The Obama administration has also received GOP pushback on the facility. Republicans have opposed using the prison for Guantanamo Bay detainees. But Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), whose district includes Thomson, has supported the DOJ’s purchase of the facility if the prison is used to house more prisoners in the federal prison system. The budget request doesn’t say that the prison will hold Guantanamo Bay detainees, though President Barack Obama has pledged to move them from the detention facility in order to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba.
The House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and science subcommittee held its first hearing on the DOJ Bureau of Prisons budget last month. It may take several more months before funding is allocated; the DOJ budget for fiscal year 2010 was not enacted until mid-December.
The full letter from the liberal organizations on indefinite detention at Thomson is below.
Members of the U.S. Senate
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives
Alliance for Justice
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International USA
Center for Constitutional Rights
Government Accountability Project
Japanese American Citizens League
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Physicians for Human Rights
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
April 8, 2022
RE: Opposition to the Purchase of the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois—Unless Congress Also Enacts a Permanent, Statutory Ban on Using the Thomson Prison for Indefinitely Detaining Persons Without Charge or Trial, or for Holding Persons During Military Commission Trials or for Serving Sentences Imposed by Military Commissions
We urge you to oppose legislation authorizing, or appropriating federal funds for, the purchase of the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois, unless Congress, at the same time, also enacts a permanent, statutory ban on using the Thomson prison for indefinitely detaining persons without charge or trial, or for holding persons during military commission trials or for serving sentences imposed by military commissions. All of our organizations strongly support the responsible closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, and we would support using the Thomson facility for holding any detainees now at Guantánamo who may be charged, tried, or sentenced in federal criminal court. However, we strongly oppose transporting the worst of Guantánamo policies—indefinite detention without charge or trial and military commissions—to a prison within the United States itself. If used for one or both of these purposes, the purchase of the Thomson prison could result in institutionalizing and perpetuating policies that should instead end.
On December 15, 2009, President Obama signed a memorandum directing the Attorney General and Secretary of Defense to acquire and activate the Thomson prison for use by the Department of Defense in holding detainees currently at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons as a federal penitentiary for holding prisoners in high security, maximum security conditions. According to a study by the Council of Economic Advisers last year, the Defense Department would control 400 of the 1600 cells at the Thomson prison. The Bureau of Prisons would control the remaining cells.
On December 15, a number of government officials provided further details on who would be, and who would not be, held in the portion of the Thomson prison designated for use by the Defense Department. In a letter and accompanying questions and answers from the Deputy Secretary of Defense to Congressman Mark Kirk, the Defense Department stated that the Thomson prison would be used to imprison Guantánamo detainees whom the government is indefinitely detaining without charge or trial under a claim of detention authority based on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, and also Guantánamo detainees tried before military commissions or serving sentences imposed by military commissions. However, the Deputy Secretary’s answer to Congressman Kirk’s questions stated that Guantánamo detainees charged and tried before federal criminal courts would not be housed at the Thomson prison. Further, in a briefing by a “senior administration official” on December 15, the official stated that Guantánamo detainees cleared for release would remain at Guantánamo until transferred to other countries, and would not go to Thomson.
There is a right way and a wrong way to close Guantánamo. To date, many of the steps the Obama Administration has taken—with the support of many members of Congress, including prominent congressional supporters of the Thomson purchase–have been in the direction of closing Guantánamothe right way. The Obama Administration has worked hard to make charging decisions for detainees whom the government believes should be prosecuted in federal criminal courts in the United States, has closely collaborated with important allies of the United States in repatriating and resettling detainees cleared for release, and has continued the process of clearing detainees for release or transfer. The Obama Administration should continue all of these steps until the population at Guantánamo reaches zero.
However, there are two developments over the past year that constitute closing Guantánamo the wrong way. First, the government has reinstituted the discredited military commissions. The military commissions have now gone through eight years, two statutes, four sets of rules, but have only resulted in three convictions, with two of those convicted detainees now released. By contrast, more than 400 defendants have been convicted of terrorism-related offense in federal criminal courts. The military commissions still do not have any rules based on the new statute, continue to have fundamental problems that could result in their proceedings being held illegal under the Constitution and international law, and deservedly lack credibility both at home and abroad. Second, the government continues to claim authority to indefinitely detain without charge or trial some of the Guantánamo detainees. Even if there is legal authority to continue to indefinitely detain these men, which many of our groups dispute, the government should make the policy decision that the interests of the United States are better served by either charging a detainee in federal criminal court or repatriating or resettling the detainee.
Based on the government’s own statements, it appears that the Defense Department-run portion of the Thomson prison would house only those Guantánamo detainees being held pursuant to Guantánamo policies that should end—namely, military commissions and indefinite detention without charge or trial. Congress should not authorize, or appropriate money for the acquisition of the Thomson prison unless it also enacts a permanent statutory provision that would ensure that the Thomson prison will not become a U.S.-based prison dedicated to perpetuating Guantánamo policies that should end.
Bringing the practice of indefinite detention without charge or trial to any location within the United States will further harm the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution. Shortly after President Obama took office, the government prosecuted and convicted, in federal criminal court, the only person then-held on U.S. soil indefinitely without charge or trial. At present, the number of people held within the U.S. itself indefinitely without charge or trial is zero. However, if the Thomson prison is acquired and the current statutory prohibition on transferring Guantánamo detainees for purposes other than prosecution is allowed to expire, the number of persons held on U.S. soil without charge or trial could reportedly rise to 50 or more.
Moreover, Thomson could eventually become the place to send other persons held indefinitely without charge or trial—with the prospect of detainees being transferred there from Bagram, Afghanistan or new captures brought from other locations around the globe. The unfortunate reality that we would face if Thomson opens is that it is easier to go from 50 to 100 indefinite detention prisoners than it is to go from 0 to 1. Once the indefinite detention policy is institutionalized at Thomson, it will be difficult to hold the line at former Guantánamo detainees.
We urge that you oppose the purchase of the Thomson prison unless Congress, at the same time that it authorizes or funds the purchase, also enacts a permanent, statutory ban on using the Thomson facility for indefinite detention without charge or trial or for military commission-related detention. The current statutory ban on transferring detainees to the United States for purposes of indefinite detention without charge or trial expires at the end of the current fiscal year. Congress should not move forward with the Thomson purchase until and unless it permanently prohibits indefinite detention and military commission-related detention at the Thomson facility.
We would be very interested in meeting with you or your staff to discuss this issue further.
The Justice Department intends to acquire a prison in Thomson, Ill., even if Congress won’t let the Obama administration move Guantanamo Bay detainees there, a DOJ official said Thursday.
Assistant Attorney General Ron Weich wrote in a letter to Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), whose district includes Thomson, that the federal prison system is experiencing a “critical overcrowding problem” and is in “urgent need” of more high security facilities.
The fiscal year 2011 DOJ budget request calls for $237 million to purchase, set up and run the Thomson Correctional Center, according to Weich. But the budget request doesn’t say that the prison will hold Guantanamo Bay detainees, who President Barack Obama has pledged to move from the detention facility in order to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba.
“[T]he President has directed the Department of Justice to acquire the facility to fulfill both the goals of reducing federal prison overcrowding and transferring a limited number of detainees out of Guantanamo,” Weich wrote. “The Department has made clear, however, that it would be seeking to purchase the facility in Thomson even if detainees were not being considered for the transfer there.”
Republicans, including Manzullo, have discouraged the Obama administration from transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees to the prison.
Manzullo has said he supports the repurposing of the Illinois state prison to house more prisoners in the federal prison system, but not for holding Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“The federal prison system is way overcrowded and is in dire need of more space, and Thomson offers an ideal solution,” Manzullo said in a statement last November. “Moving Gitmo north to Thomson, Illinois, should not be part of the package, especially since the administration faces a huge hurdle in getting congressional approval for the terrorists to be detained in America.”
It will likely be several more months before the DOJ would be able to secure most of the funds requested for the Thomson prison.
The House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and science subcommittee held its first hearing on the DOJ Bureau of Prisons budget Thursday. It may take several more months before funding is allocated; the DOJ budget for fiscal year 2010 was not enacted until mid-December.
The DOJ can ask for some funds to start on security upgrades before the DOJ budget is enacted, according to the Tribune Washington Bureau, which first reported the story. But the Illinois state legislature must still approve the sale of the prison before the DOJ can begin work on the facility.
The Justice Department’s fiscal 2011 budget request asks for funding to buy the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, but the proposal sent to Congress leaves out one key piece: it does not mention that the facility would be used to house accused terrorists currently held at Guantanamo Bay.
Instead, the Bureau of Prisons’ request seeks $170 million to buy and renovate the Thomson, Ill., prison because of inmate crowding conditions at high security facilities.
“Inmate crowding, especially at high security levels, is at maximum manageable proportions and additional bed space is crucial to provide some relief for staff and inmates,” the request states. “Inmate crowding that is not addressed will continue to endanger staff, inmates, and the community.”
According to a DOJ spokeswoman, the department’s fiscal 2011 budget also requests an additional $67 million to upgrade the facility to a high security federal penitentiary. In all, the DOJ is seeking $237 million for use on the facility.
The Bureau of Prison’s budget proposal says that high security facilities are operating at 51 percent over capacity and that the trend is “projected to worsen in future years, as the population continues to outpace capacity.”
As of May 2009, according to the request, 18,630 high security inmates — or 93 percent of all high security population in federal facilities — were double bunked. Under the BOP standards, no more than 25 percent of high security inmates should be double bunked. The Thomson facility would provide an additional 1,600 high security cells.
The request does mention that prisons have taken on significantly greater risks because of several high-profile terrorists already housed in the federal prison system including former al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, among others.
The final sale of the prison still has several hurdles to overcome. In Illinois, the state legislature voted last month to require the governor to obtain approval from the legislature before selling state properties worth more than $1 million — a new requirement that would apply to the state-owned Thomson facility.
For their part, federal officials have tried to focus on the benefits the purchase would bring to the local community. Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons told The Christian Monitor that of the 850 to 900 staff positions at the prison, 60 percent would be local. Lappin estimated that 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.
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The $29.2 billion Justice Department budget for fiscal 2011 proposed by President Barack Obama on Monday includes $237 million to purchase and upgrade a prison in Illinois to house detainees now housed at the Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba, reports The Chicago Sun-Times.
According to The Sun-Times, the State of Illinois and the federal government are currently negotiating over the purchase price of the state-owned, but now vacant, Thomson Correctional Center in northwest Illinois.
Reports The Sun-Times:
In a briefing with reporters on Sunday afternoon previewing the budget — the contents were embargoed until 6 a.m. Eastern time on Monday — White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag said the acquisition of Thomson by the federal government would be “warranted” even in the absence of Guantánamo detainees, because more space was needed to house federal maximum security prisoners.
On the call, the briefers used two numbers to discuss the Thomson purchase and security upgrading needed — $250 million and $270 million. Asked to clarify, the Chicago Sun-Times was told the Justice Department fiscal 2011 request will include “$237 million to purchase, modify, and operate Thomson for a full year.
“This should not be viewed as the purchase price alone — it includes the cost of modifying and operating the facility for a year. The negotiation process with the State of Illinois regarding the purchase price is ongoing, and this number builds in flexibility depending on the final appraisals and final negotiated price with the state.”
Here are some of the other highlights from the president’s budget request, which is about $1.5 billion more than the budget that was enacted for fiscal 2010:
- A $233 million increase for the FBI for national security work, intelligence gathering, technology, information sharing and infrastructure improvements.
- A $302 million increase for retaining or hiring police officers.
- A $120 million increase for combating violence against women.
- $104 million for additional FBI and DOJ employees to investigate major financial fraud.
- A $91 million increase for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces and the Drug Enforcement Administration to fight drug trafficking on the Southwest border.
- A $90.3 million increase for national security, infrastructure improvements, and curbing violent and international organized crime.
- $73 million for transferring, prosecuting and incarcerating Guantánamo Bay detainees.
- $60 million for more Department of Health and Human Services and DOJ task forces. There are seven task forces now and the budget request calls for 20.
- A $23.5 million increase for the U.S. Attorneys to combat economic crimes, “preserve justice through civil enforcement,” E-Discovery and International Organize Crime initiatives.
- A $17.8 million increase to better combat civil rights crimes.
Read the full DOJ budget request here and a fact sheet on the DOJ budget request here.
A briefing with reporters about the budget is scheduled at Justice Department headquarters in Washington this afternoon.
Andrew Ramonas contributed to this report.
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