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Federal government to buy Ill. prison for $165M

CHICAGO (AP) — The federal government has agreed to buy the closed Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois for $165 million after the sale was held up for three years, state leaders announced Tuesday.

Many Illinois leaders — including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn who spoke to The Associated Press ahead of a news conference to announce the sale — supported the purchase because they said it would bring up to 1,100 jobs to Illinois. Federal officials have said it would help alleviate prison overcrowding.

"It means a prison that has been sitting here empty will be used again and create a lot of opportunity for working families in the areas," Durbin said.

The sale of the facility has been stalled for years. Most recently, Virginia Republican U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who heads a key House subcommittee overseeing the federal Bureau of Prisons, objected to the purchase because he believed terrorism suspects would be housed there. The Obama administration, which supports the sale, has vowed that won't happen and federal law now prohibits any transfers from Guantanamo Bay to Thomson.

Durbin reasserted that vow Tuesday, saying transfers from Guantanamo Bay must be housed in a military facility and that Thomson, 150 miles west of Chicago, would not be equipped to serve that purpose. He added that getting someone like Wolf to sign off is a longstanding courtesy but not a legal necessity. Illinois leaders repeatedly tried to meet with Wolf to change his mind but were unsuccessful, the Democrat said.

Instead, the Department of Justice will move on its own authority — and on the Bureau of Prisons' behalf — and file paperwork Tuesday in federal court to transfer the sale to the federal system. The money will come from unobligated Department of Justice funds, Durbin said.

Officials with the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons didn't immediately have further details.

Wolf immediately blasted the move calling it "deeply troubling" and an "unprecedented directive to ... circumvent Congress."

"I am concerned that this purchase will set in motion the administration's plan to close the terrorist detention facility in Guantanamo Bay by transferring terrorist detainees to U.S. maximum security prisons, like Thomson," he said in a statement.

Thomson prison, located in a western Illinois community by the same name, was built in 2001. But budget troubles kept it from fully opening and its 1,600 cells housed fewer than 200 inmates before the facility was closed in preparation for a sale. The last inmates were moved out in 2010.

The Bureau of Prisons first proposed buying the Thomson prison in 2009. At that time, the proposal included using some of the prison for transfers from Guantanamo Bay. However that idea was dropped after vocal public opposition.

Federal appraisals on the value of Thomson have varied, but an average of three appraisals in 2012 was $220 million. Federal officials have said that building a new prison instead of buying Thomson would cost about $400 million and take years.

Illinois officials estimated the state could get the money by the end of the year.

Quinn called Tuesday's court action an important step.

"It's been a long journey," he said.


Associated Press writer Peter Yost contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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