Nearly three years after it proposed the idea, the Obama administration has delivered a $165 million payment today to a federal court in Rockford, Ill., to buy the Thomson Correctional Center from the state of Illinois, bypassing a Republican congressman from Virginia who has put the brakes on the purchase for months, according to a key supporter of the plan.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Gov. Pat Quinn are scheduled to make an announcement in Thomson today that court papers have been filed with the U.S. District Court in Rockford to seek a friendly condemnation of the property.
The court’s approval is needed because the $165 million purchase price is less than the $220 million appraisal on the long-vacant prison, officials say.
The decision to move ahead came directly from President Barack Obama, Durbin said in an interview with the Quad-City Times today. The move sets up the prospect for creating hundreds of new jobs in an ailing part of northwest Illinois and in the presidential swing state of Iowa.
“We’ve waited over a year,” Durbin said, explaining why the decision was made to move ahead. Durbin spoke with the president about the matter while on Air Force One back in March. “It was a decision by the president, and that’s why the Department of Justice took action today.”
The administration has estimated that opening Thomson as a federal prison will create more than 1,000 jobs in the region.
The prison was built in 2001 for $140 million, but it’s remained mostly unused since then because the state hasn’t had the money to operate it. People in the Thomson area have pushed for years to get the facility open, and its economic benefits are expected to help not just northwest Illinois but Clinton County in Iowa, too.
Today’s announcement comes in the midst of a presidential campaign in which the economy is the key issue, and it’s being made on the same day Republican vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan spends the day campaigning in Clinton, Muscatine and Burlington.
Durbin noted the president’s role in the decision to move ahead and buy the prison, but he also stressed that he’s worked with congressional Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, for months to try to get the prison open.
“In fairness, we’ve been at this for a long, long time,” he said.
The administration’s attempt to buy Thomson has been stymied by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who has said he would not sign off on a request to reprogram funding that has been appropriated for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Wolf has said that he doesn’t trust the Justice Department not to send prisoners from the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Thomson. He’s also said there are existing federal prisons waiting to be opened. Some of those prisons, however, wouldn’t accommodate the maximum security prisoners that Thomson would.
It was nearly three years ago that the president directed that Thomson be purchased in order to move Guantanamo Bay detainees there. The plan met resistance in Congress, however, and the administration said it was abandoning those plans.
Instead, the administration said it wants the prison to ease overcrowding in the federal prison system. The state of Illinois and the administration agreed on a purchase price of $165 million, but the sale hasn’t been able to move forward because it failed to get a new appropriation. Then, Wolf refused to sign off on the reprogramming.
Executive agencies seeking to reprogram already appropriated dollars have traditionally sought the signatures of the chairmen and ranking members of relevant appropriations committees in the House and Senate. But getting congressional consent to reprogram money is not a requirement of the law, according to the Congressional Research Service, although it notes lawmakers can include limiting language in appropriations bills.
Congress has passed language prohibiting the administration from using federal dollars to move Guantanamo Bay prisoners to U.S. soil.
For months, Wolf had been the target of efforts to try to get the reprogramming approved. But this summer, some lawmakers from states that were awaiting prisons to be opened joined Wolf in opposing the Thomson reprogramming. One of those states, New Hampshire, has a federal prison that also hasn’t been opened yet. But this spring, the Bureau of Prisons said it was moving ahead with activating that prison.
It's not clear when applications for jobs at the prison would begin being accepted. The court process could take a few months. There also will need to be construction at the facility to upgrade it to federal standards.