U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and assistant Senate majority leader, announced Tuesday that the Obama administration will purchase the unused Thomson prison from the state of Illinois for $165 million.
Durbin hailed the acquisition as an instance of collaboration between Gov. Pat Quinn and the U.S. Justice Department Federal Bureau of Prisons. “This historic action will lead to the creation of hundreds of construction jobs and over 1,000 permanent jobs at this facility,” Durbin said in a statement.
Cheri Bustos, the Democratic nominee in the 17th congressional district that includes the village of Thomson, said the sale was “great news because there should be no higher priority than putting people in our district back to work,” in an e-mailed statement.
While the agreement might indeed prove a boon to an economically troubled region, it emerged out of exasperation with U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls the Justice Department budget.
Since May of last year Wolf used his position to block the sale and argue that the Obama administration planned to use Thomson for housing terrorist detainees now at Guantanamo Bay. This was despite repeated assurances to the contrary by Attorney General Eric Holder, including under oath in a Senate hearing this June.
Wolf refused to work with not only with Durbin, but Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, who represents the 17th district. In a letter to Durbin on August 3, Wolf made it apparent that no matter what assurances the Obama administration provided, he does not trust the word of Holder.
Around the time of the letter, Durbin met with Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to discuss acquiring Thomson without the approval of Wolf. Those talks lead to this week’s agreement.
Durbin spokeswoman Christina Mulka explained in an e-mail that that while the approval of the appropriations subcommittee chairman “is a long-standing procedure and done dozens of time a year, it is not required by law.”
There is no legal requirement, Mulka wrote, because Congress already appropriated the $165 million, but did not stipulate a specific use for the money.
So why then did Durbin and the Justice Department engage in an extended dispute with Wolf?
“Bottom line as an agency, you want to have good working relationship with the chairman of the appropriations committee that funds your agency,” Mulka wrote. “When it finally reached the point that it was clear that Congressman Wolf wasn’t going to budge, the Administration took action.”
Thomson is a major issue in the race between Bustos and Schilling. Both candidates have pushed the need for federal acquisition of a facility that has sat mostly empty since the state finished its construction in 2002.
Bustos has pilloried Schilling for having no sway over Wolf, his GOP colleague. “I would do everything in my power to make sure that my Republican colleague would move on it,” Bustos told Progress Illinois in July. “I would camp outside this guy’s office.”
It’s not clear what the political impact will be for Schilling, who gets the prison sale he wanted but only by a Democratic governor, presidential administration, and U.S. Senator ignoring the objections of a Republican House leader. Calls to Schilling’s campaign headquarters were not returned.
Bustos, in her statement on the sale, praised Obama and Durbin who “were up against incredible gridlock.”
Meanwhile, the prison provides $165 million to a cash-poor state government.
But since Thomson will be used as a federal prison housing federal inmates, it bears little relevance on current issues facing the Illinois Department of Corrections. These include record overcrowding and a lawsuit by AFSCME public employees union to block the planned closing of state prisons, including the Tamms super max facility.