By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — A Virginia congressman condemned the Obama administration Tuesday for going forward with plans to buy an empty Illinois prison with $165 million in taxpayers’ money.
The long-pending sale was seen by many as a win-win for the state and the federal government, which would buy the former prison. Illinois needed to unload the prison, which was built for $140 million in 2001 but was never fully used because it didn’t have the money to house inmates or to staff it. The feds could take over the prison for a bargain price, create hundreds of jobs and house federal inmates there or even terrorist detainees, such as those at Guantanamo Bay, although that idea reportedly is off the table.
Wolf, however, sharply criticized the move, saying President Barack Obama’s directive to go forward with the purchase is “deeply troubling.” Wolf chairs a subcommittee that funds the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire,” Wolf said in a statement Tuesday.
He described the $165-million expenditure as “alarming” and “unprecedented.”
State officials see the sale as a boon for jobs in a remote part of the state. Thomson, a town of almost 600 in Carroll County, sits on the Mississippi River about halfway between the Quad Cities and Illinois’ northern border.
The prison was supposed to be a job-creator back in 2001 under Gov. George Ryan, an inmate at a minimum-security federal prison in Indiana for an unrelated federal corruption conviction. But budget problems prevented the state from fully opening the Thomson prison, so it sat mostly empty for a decade.
The prison sits on 146 acres and has 1,600 beds. A recent appraisal put its value at $220 million.
“This is excellent news that will create more than 1,000 jobs in northwestern Illinois and provide relief to taxpayers across the state who will no longer be forced to pay for an empty, unnecessary facility,” Quinn said Tuesday.
Where taxpayers are concerned, though, there is an important lesson to be learned, said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-leaning think tank.
“Thomson was the result of a capital spending spree that didn’t connect the dots between funneling cash into government building projects and having the money to actually operate and run those facilities,” Rasmussen said. “I wonder how many projects from the pork-filled capital bill that passed a few years ago will run into the same problems.”
Wolf said the timing of the agreement is “suspect,” noting that it is happening just weeks before the November election. He also said he is concerned the sale paves the way for Obama to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and move terrorist detainees to the United States.
Obama has said he does not intend to move federal detainees to Thomson.
Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations, also criticized the agreement.
“The Obama administration has been trying for years to open Thomson prison in order to transfer terrorists from Guantanamo Bay onto U.S. soil,” he said. “Congress has vehemently denied this request and has refused funding for the prison at every step of the way.”
State officials said it costs about $800,000 annually to maintain the empty Thomson prison.