Federal and state officials visited a maximum-security prison in rural Michigan on Thursday to begin assessing its suitability to house Guantanamo Bay detainees.
About a dozen state officials were joined by 18 representatives from the Defense, Justice and Homeland Security departments and the Bureau of Prisons on the tour of the lockup in Standish, said Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
The prison in Standish, 145 miles north of Detroit, and a military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., are being considered to house the 229 suspected al-Qaida, Taliban and foreign fighters currently at the Guantanamo Bay prison, if it is closed by 2010 as President Barack Obama has ordered.
Wednesday's was a fact-finding inspection, and federal officials had not proposed transferring detainees to Standish, Marlan said.
"The visit to Standish is to do a preliminary site survey. No final decisions have been made," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs in Washington said about the survey.
Same lunch as inmates
Marlan said the group looked at six housing units, the administration building, the health care wing and the cafeteria, where they lunched on the same meal the inmates were served: Salisbury steak, beans, spinach and carrot cake.
None of the federal officials commented to reporters as they left for private meetings with local officials.
The tour was similar to one given recently to a corrections team from California, which has shown interest in sending inmates from its overcrowded prisons to Michigan and is expected to make a decision within a couple of weeks, Marlan said. Michigan also has received inquiries about housing inmates from Pennsylvania.
The region around Standish is hurting economically, with an unemployment rate of more than 17 percent, and some residents welcome bringing in the Guantanamo detainees if it will prevent closing down the prison, which with about 340 workers is the area's largest employer.
"Let 'em come. This community is hurting enough," Gloria Watson, 71, said while lunching in a downtown restaurant.
The terrorism suspects would be no more dangerous than other criminals who have been held in the prison throughout its 20-year history, said Watson, the pastor of a Presbyterian church in nearby Twining. "I just wish people would stop running scared."
Others fear bringing the Guantanamo detainees to Standish would make the town a target.
"The problem I have is, you almost are putting a bulls-eye on the whole entire area. There are just too many things that could go wrong," said Tom Kerrins, the chief steward for the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing prison workers in Standish.
‘Kick us down the road’
Kerrins, 49, said the union opposes sending the Gitmo prisoners to Standish in part because it doubts the jobs of watching over them would go to the state officers working there now and would instead go to federal officers.
"They're still going to kick us down the road. They're going to use their own people," the Gladwin resident said Thursday outside the prison.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that he would ask the departments of Defense and Justice to lead a delegation to visit Guantanamo Bay "to better understand the special circumstances and the challenges that these detainees present by moving them to Michigan."
Hoekstra, who is running for Michigan governor in 2010, is opposed to moving the prisoners to the state.
"Allowing state and local officials to see firsthand these detainees and Guantanamo Bay is necessary for them to understand the challenges and risks," he said in a statement.
Kansas' two Republican senators, Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, oppose proposals to move detainees to Fort Leavenworth, and have held up the nomination of New York Republican Rep. John McHugh for Army secretary until they receive more information from the Obama administration about the possible Leavenworth choice.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called on her Kansas colleagues to relent on Thursday, saying it's in the best interest of the Army and the nation to swiftly allow the nomination to move forward.