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Holding Gitmo inmates would be economic boost, Illinois officials say

Thomson Correctional Center, about 150 miles west of Chicago, is the top contender to house Gitmo detainees.
Thomson Correctional Center, about 150 miles west of Chicago, is the top contender to house Gitmo detainees.
  • Proposal calls for using maximum-security prison in struggling northern Illinois
  • On Monday, federal officials to visit facility in Thomson, about 150 miles west of Chicago
  • "It's good for our economy, it's good for public safety," Illinois governor says
  • But Rep. Mark Kirk says plan could make Chicago "ground zero" for terror plots, recruitment

(CNN) -- A proposal to house federal prisoners, including some detainees from Guantanamo Bay, in a largely vacant maximum-security prison would be an economic boost to struggling northern Illinois, state officials said Sunday.

"This is something that is very good for our state, it's good for our economy, it's good for public safety," Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn told reporters.

Officials from the departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security and the federal Bureau of Prisons will visit the Thomson Correctional Center on Monday, the officials said. Quinn's office on Saturday said the officials would see whether the "virtually vacant, state-of-the-art facility" in Thomson, about 150 miles west of Chicago, could be of use to the Bureau of Prisons.

If it is, the governor and other officials said Sunday, it could provide up to 2,000 jobs and up to $1 billion in federal money to the area.

And Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, said he believes the proposal provides a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for his state's residents.

"There are other states that want to take these jobs," Sen. Durbin said. "We've got to win this competition."

Video: Lawmakers tour Illinois prison

Under the proposal, he said, federal officials have said fewer than 100 detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba would be housed in the 1,600-bed facility. They would be in a wing under the control of the Department of Defense, while the Bureau of Prisons would assume responsibility for the rest of the facility.

The United States is asking other countries to house some of the Guantanamo detainees when the prison is closed, said Durbin, the Senate majority whip. But those countries are asking why America is not housing some of the inmates itself, he said, and use of the Thomson facility would demonstrate to them that the United States is willing to shoulder some of the responsibility.

An Obama administration official said Saturday that as part of the conversion at Thomson, the Bureau of Prisons and Defense Department would enhance security to exceed those of the nation's only supermax prison -- the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado. No person has ever escaped from the prison.

The Thomson proposal, first reported Saturday by the Chicago Tribune, triggered immediate concern from critics. U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, whose district covers suburban Chicago, circulated a letter addressed to President Obama to Illinois leaders Saturday, opposing the possible transfer of detainees and saying that housing them in Thomson would turn metropolitan Chicago into "ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization."

As home to Chicago's Willis (formerly Sears) Tower -- the nation's tallest building -- "we should not invite al Qaeda to make Illinois its number one target," says Kirk, who is running for the same Senate seat once held by Obama.

Durbin on Sunday pointed to the federal maximum-security prison in Marion, Illinois, which he said already houses 35 people convicted of terrorism, along with members of Colombian drug gangs and Mexican drug cartels -- "some of the most dangerous people in America."

"They're all in our prisons, and they're all held safely," he said. And "things haven't changed in Marion, Illinois."

Those housed in the Marion penitentiary include Ali al-Marri, who is serving a sentence of eight years and four months after pleading guilty in federal court to conspiring to provide material support to al Qaeda.

They're all in our prisons, and they're all held safely. [And] things haven't changed in Marion, Illinois.
--Sen. Dick Durbin, on Marion's federal maximum-security prison, which houses some terrorists

The Thomson prison was built in 2001 and sat empty for five years because the state lacked the resources to open it. Despite being built as a maximum-security facility, it houses 144 minimum-security male inmates, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections Web site.

"After living in limbo for eight years, we're open to any and all alternatives for Thomson," said Jerry "Duke" Hebeler, Thomson village mayor. He estimated that the move would cut the county's unemployment in half.

"I'd never chase jobs if I thought it would jeopardize the security and safety of my neighbors and friends," Hebeler said.

Quinn said that during the inspection Monday, "We want to answer any and all questions that the federal authorities have."

The Obama administration has vowed to close the Guantanamo facility, but acknowledges it is unlikely to happen by its self-imposed January 22, 2010, deadline. About 215 men are held there. They include alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who officials said Friday will be transferred to New York to go on trial in civilian court.

The federal prison system houses approximately 340 inmates linked to international terrorism, including more than 200 tied to international incidents, another Obama official said.

CNN's Jessica Yellin contributed to this report.