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Illinois Jail is Lined Up to Hold Guantánamo Detainees
'Super-maximum' facility backed by state governor but would need approval of Congress
A significant number of the remaining 215 inmates of Guantánamo Bay could be transferred to a maximum-security prison in rural Illinois, according to a source in President Barack Obama's administration.
The source described the Thomson Correctional Centre, a 1,600-cell maximum security facility built in 2001, as the "leading contender" to house a number of suspected terrorists detained at the Guantánamo Bay base in Cuba, which Obama has vowed to close.
The president, a former Illinois senator, is understood to have spoken to the state governor, fellow Democrat Pat Quinn, about the issue. The prison, 150 miles from Chicago, has never been fully operational because of budget problems and now houses 200 minimum-security prisoners. Under the proposal, it would be sold to the federal government to be used as a "super-maximum" facility.
Speculation over where Guantánamo inmates would be housed has been heightened after Friday's announcement that the five key alleged plotters in the 9/11 attacks – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – will be tried by a civilian court in New York, in the same district where the Twin Towers once stood.
The US Justice Department also announced the legal processes that other detainees would face, including an alleged plotter in the bombing of the US destroyer Cole in 2000, who will go before a military tribunal.
The decision to try Mohammed and four other suspects in a federal court before a jury has already provoked a heated debate in the US. Critics have questioned the staging of a civil trial for those who see themselves as engaged in a conflict with America and the west.
Any decision to move detainees from Guantánamo to the US – already opposed by many US politicians and banned by Congress – would also be highly controversial.
Thomson prison is near the Iowa border on the Mississippi river. It is surrounded by a double fence, which is partly electrified. According to the Illinois state department of corrections, Thomson's "design, movement patterns and programming options... allow a strong community of order to be maintained... [with] inmates [able to] be monitored under constant armed and electronic surveillance".
Quinn has been a forceful advocate of the sale of the prison, writing recently to the attorney general and secretary for defence in a letter leaked to the Chicago Tribune. He said last week he intended to announce a plan for the prison in the next few days. In his letter he stated: "I understand that you are still considering other options but the Federal Bureau of Prisons would be hard-pressed to find a similar facility with such extensive safety and security measures already in place anywhere in America."
Thomson, which has been hard hit by the recession, appears to have few objections. When the idea was floated earlier this year the town's mayor, Jerry Hebeler, said he would not argue if the government wanted to house Guantánamo detainees in the prison.
"They can't be any worse than any murderer," Hebeler told a local newspaper in May. "It's maximum security. It's for that."
The plan would, however, require a change to the law that prevents the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to US soil except for trial proceedings. This would suggest that the Obama administration intends to push through prosecutions of more detainees, or it believes that with such strong support from the local communityit would make it easier to push the plan through Congress.