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Sale of Thomson prison to feds is mostly good news

The following editorial appeared in The Telegraph, Alton, Ill., on Oct. 8:

(MCT) — Last week’s announcement that the federal government will buy a closed prison in western Illinois for $165 million is a good news, bad news situation for the state.

First, the good news. The Thomson Correctional Center was built in 2001, but budget troubles kept it from opening fully. It has 1,600 cells but housed fewer than 200 inmates before being closed several years ago to prepare for a sale. That sale has been stalled for several years, most recently because of opposition from U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who rejected the deal because he said he believed the federal government would use the prison to house terrorists it would transfer from the controversial detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Federal officials have denied that was their plan. Last week, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Gov. Pat Quinn announced that federal officials had decided to go around Wolf, who is chairman of a U.S. House subcommittee overseeing the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and act on their authority. Durbin acknowledged the move was unusual but insisted it was not illegal.

So the good news for Illinois is that the state will receive $165 million, which Quinn says will be used to pay off bond debt used to build the prison. Any money left over after that can be used by the state to help address its budget problems, with the governor saying it should be used to pay down Illinois’ massive backlog of unpaid bills.

After all, Illinois wasn’t using the prison and, without the sale, would have been stuck with having to repay those bonds. State officials should be happy to be getting rid of this white elephant.

State officials say the federal takeover will create about 1,100 jobs in Illinois, and federal officials say it will ease overcrowding in their prison system, all of which is good news.

But there’s a bad news side to the coin here. Illinois has a prison overcrowding problem, and it seems like a shame to lose a facility that possibly could have helped ease that situation.

Unfortunately, the same budget problems that prevented Thomson from ever opening fully are prompting Quinn’s administration to push for the closure of other state prisons. With the state’s huge budget deficit, Quinn says Illinois just doesn’t have the money to keep those prisons open and pay the corrections officers needed to staff them.

The whole history of the Thomson facility is sadly illustrative of dysfunction on the part of state government. State officials obviously miscalculated when they built the prison, not realizing they would be unable to pay for it. That miscalculation must be laid at the feet of lawmakers going back a decade and more who spent more than the state could bring in, year after year, and set Illinois on its slide down the slippery slope of debt.

Now, even though the state desperately needs modern facilities to house its overflow of prisoners, its ever-increasing downward budget spiral has made that impossible. Instead, it’s likely the state will have to release many prisoners, some of whom are likely to commit more crimes, and many state employees will lose well-paying jobs in parts of Illinois that desperately need them.

It’s enough to make an Illinois taxpayer wish a few more politicians could be locked up, too.

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