Video: Illinois embraces potential prison boost

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    >>> and back in this country, there is controversy over an obama administration plan to relocate military detainees from gitmo, guantanamo bay prison in cuba. one of the spots under consideration is in the small town of thomson in western illinois . the president's home state. local folks are all for the economic boost but some say the prisoners would be a security threat. our report from nbc's kevin tibbles.

    >> reporter: the team of federal officials from the bureau of prisons and the departments of defense, justice and homeland security toured the thomson correctional center as a potential maximum security location to house prisoners from guantanamo bay , cuba.

    >> it's important to recognize that guantanamo itself has been used as a recruitment tool by those who would seem to harm us. so it is time now to again closing it and that means moving some of these detainees to a secure, a very secure site within the united states .

    >> reporter: built in 2001 , the mod around facility has been dubbed "the ghost prison " by many in illinois , as it remains almost empty due to financial constraints. just 150 minimum security prisoners are held here. thomson could house ten times that many. officials say a new perimeter fence, along with an increase in staff, would maximize security.

    >> over the next four years, i anticipate a growth of between 800 million and a billion dollars into the local economy because of this.

    >> reporter: senator durbin says as many as 3,000 jobs could be created. but illinois ' republican congressman say the plan just isn't safe, suggesting several landmarks, including o'hare airport and the former sears tower could become targets.

    >> the people of thomson , illinois , are in desperate need for jobs. why saddle them with the responsibility of having to live in an area that could easily be one where terrorists could strike?

    >> they're trying to scare people.

    >> reporter: but in this rural, isolated part of the nation, hard hit economically, many here say they need the jobs no matter how many.

    >> the jobs here are very limited, so it would definitely help the community financial wise.

    >> i'm for it. bring it in. we need the jobs.

    >> reporter: federal officials are reportedly considering two other locations for detainees, one in colorado and one in montana. for those whcommunities, as here, the issue is likely to be less about safety and more about security in the form of jobs. kevin tibbles, nbc news, thomson , illinois .

    >>> on wall street today, stocks

updated 11/16/2009 7:00:43 PM ET 2009-11-17T00:00:43

Some folks in this dying Mississippi River town would rather take their chances with suspected terrorists in their backyard than watch their neighbors continue to move away in despair over the lack of jobs.

News that the federal government may buy the nearly empty Thomson Correctional Center and use the maximum-security state prison to house Guantanamo Bay detainees has given people in Thomson hope that things might be about to turn around in this woeful town of 450.

"This town is slowly but surely dying off, and I mean that literally because the people that are retired are dying off and there's no young people coming back in to take their place. There's nothing here to draw them," said Richard Groharing, a 68-year-old retired Florida corrections officer who was born in Thomson, a farming community about 150 miles west of Chicago.

The prison was built in 2001 with the promise of thousands of jobs. But because of state budget problems, it has been largely vacant since its completion. It has 1,600 cells, but only about 200 minimum-security inmates are held there.

The Obama administration wants to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer some terrorism suspects to the U.S. for trial. On Monday, federal officials were at the Thomson prison to inspect it and meet with state and local authorities.

High unemployment
While Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin, both Democrats, welcomed the possibility of locking up Guantanamo detainees at Thomson , several other Illinois lawmakers objected, warning that it would make the Chicago area a terrorist target.

But some folks who live in the shadow of the prison don't buy that.

If Chicago is a target, they say, it's because it is a big city, not because detainees are held elsewhere in Illinois.

"They're always in jeopardy anyway for attacks," said Denny Percy, a retiree hanging out with his buddies at a bait shop down the road from the prison.

Illinois Prison Obama
Todd Mizener  /  AP
A wing inside the Thomson Correctional Center.
Bait shop owner Todd Baker said a federal takeover of the prison would be good for the town and surrounding Carroll County, where unemployment is 10.5 percent.

Baker said it could spur new housing, gas stations and other businesses that would create jobs and customers for his shop, which is stocked with fishing supplies and serves as a local hangout.

The Obama administration has also considered sending Guantanamo detainees to other locations in the U.S., including the maximum-security prison in Standish, Mich., where many residents also have welcomed the idea in the hope that it would spur jobs.

Lawmakers said they were told in a briefing from the Pentagon and the federal Bureau of Prisons that between 450 and 500 new employees would be hired at $37,000 to $47,000 a year at Thomson if it received Guantanamo detainees.

All about jobs
Quinn and others estimate a federal takeover would create as many as 3,000 jobs in all, counting the new businesses created.

"I got a feeling that it will wind up being a boon for this town," Groharing said.

However, no hiring preference will be given to locals, and new hires must be under 37 and must be or become law enforcement officers. Some worry that locals who already work at the prison could lose their jobs.

Durbin accused lawmakers critical of the proposal of fearmongering and political posturing. He said that fewer than 100 of the inmates would be from Guantanamo Bay, and that the government would build an extra perimeter fence around the prison.

"This would be the most secure prison in the United States of America," the senator said.

And if any of the detainees or other inmates at the prison were to escape, some Thomson residents know how to protect themselves.

"I've got plenty of weapons and ammunition at my house," said Dave Lawton, a 62-year-old retiree.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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