Working In These Times
Who Would Benefit From ‘Gitmo North’?
THOMSON, IL.—The nearly empty maximum security prison at the edge of town has come to define Thomson, Ill., a small village that used to call itself the "melon capital of the world." Before the $145 million prison was built nine years ago, many locals opposed it, not wanting violent prisoners to come to their peaceful farming community.
But as construction got under way, most people became ardent supporters of the prison, hoping for an influx of business and jobs. Restaurants, cafes, bars and stores were opened to serve construction workers and in anticipation of the corrections officers moving to town and the family members who would visit prisoners.
But the prison never opened, although several years ago a small minimum security unit was opened at the prison and about 80 union corrections officers were hired. Now, as officials eye Thomson as a future home for Guantanamo detainees, union officials and local residents worry that jobs created by a federal takeover won't benefit current guards.
AFSCME Council 31, which represents 13,000 Illinois corrections officers, says the prison is badly needed to relieve severe crowding throughout the state's prison system. Union spokesman Anders Lindall says the overcrowding in the system puts guards at risk and creates subpar conditions for prisoners.
"Thomson was conceived and built to relieve dangerous over-crowding in the state's maximum security prisons," Lindall said. "But because of the state's broken budget, it was never fully funded."
He sees overcrowding getting even worse, especially since the state has proposed to close Stateville prison outside of Chicago, and believes that if Thomson is sold to the federal government the state may just have to build another prison—a bad deal for taxpayers.
Last fall, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich promised to open Thomson prison, and 200 corrections officers were hired. They bought or rented homes in Thomson and got ready to move in. But the "emotional roller coaster" one resident described continued, and they found out the prison would not open after all. The guards were given jobs at other prisons in the region, but most still hope Thomson will open.
Although some locals are concerned about "terrorists" in their midst now that the prison is considered the top contender for housing Guantanamo Bay detainees, most locals are firmly for the idea. They hope a federal takeover of the prison—reportedly hundreds of "regular" federal prisoners will be brought in along with 100-some Guantanamo detainees—will finally give the region jobs and an economic boost.
AFSCME, however, says not so fast. About 3,000 jobs have been promised with the federal takeover. But relatively few current state corrections officers are likely to be hired by the feds, according to Lindall and Lori Laidlaw, president of the AFSCME local at Thomson's minimum security facility.
For one thing, federal hiring standards and preferences would rule out many locals. Federal guards must be under 37 and have a bachelor's degree. People with military experience are prioritized. Federal hires would also need clean credit and criminal records.
Lindall said the union has two major demands if a federal takeover happens. One, the state must come up with a comprehensive plan for managing populations and relieving overcrowding at the state's prisons. Two, the almost 300 guards currently on staff for Thomson (80 at the minimum security facility and 200 scattered at other prisons) must be given the option of a federal job, or a guaranteed position at one of the two nearest prisons—Dixon and East Moline.
John Falls, a resident whose daughter's boyfriend works at Thomson, said he thinks a federal takeover would be a "great" thing for Thomson economically, because of the influx of new employees. But he has no illusions that many state officers would end up working there. "If the feds want to do something, they will do it regardless," he said. "There's nothing we can do to stop them. I just hope we get some jobs."