Thomson to be U.S.’s safest prison

In July of 2006, I visited the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was important for me to see Guantanamo firsthand and to meet the military personnel who are doing such a great job for our country.

For some time prior to that visit, I had been critical of the Bush administration’s policies on interrogation and detention — specifically those that allowed for waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques at Guantanamo.

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I felt then, and still feel, that these policies were not reflective of American values. They hurt our efforts in the war on terrorism, undermined public support among critical allies and put our brave men and women in uniform at even greater risk. Right or wrong, these policies turned a new U.S. military prison into a symbol of injustice to many around the world and allowed enemies of our country to use Guantanamo as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other jihadists.

That is why political and military leaders from across the spectrum — President George W. Bush, then-Sens. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos Poll: Majority of Democrats thinks Obama was better president than Washington Obama urges Americans to get health coverage in new holiday video MORE and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and Gen. David Petraeus — agreed the Guantanamo Bay facility should be closed. And in his first day in office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to do just that.

So what do we do with the remaining detainees at Guantanamo?

This week, the Obama administration answered part of that question. Under the plan announced on Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons would acquire and operate the Thomson Correctional Center — a state-of-the-art facility which has been sitting empty for eight years — as a maximum-security prison, while leasing a portion to the Defense Department to house fewer than 100 Guantanamo detainees.

This move will have a tremendously positive impact on the local economy — creating more than 3,500 jobs and injecting more than $1 billion into the local economy.

This is an opportunity to dramatically reduce unemployment, create thousands of good-paying jobs and breathe new economic life into this part of downstate Illinois.

And despite a few contrary voices who seem intent on fear mongering, this is a proposal that is strongly supported — on a bipartisan basis — in northwest Illinois. Why?

The Obama administration has put forward a plan to make it the safest prison in America.

Security enhancement within and surrounding the prison would exceed super-max standards. While the federal Bureau of Prisons would operate a federal maximum-security prison in part of Thomson, the Department of Defense would lease a portion to house any Guantanamo prisoners. They would be operated as two separate facilities. BOP would operate the federal maximum-security portion according to BOP guidelines. And DOD/U.S. military would operate the detainee facility where any Guantanamo prisoners would be held under military guidelines. That means no mixing with the general prison population. No visits from family members or friends; the only visits will be from detainees’ attorneys.

Today federal prisons in the U.S. securely house 340 inmates convicted of international or domestic terrorism, including 34 currently incarcerated in Illinois.  U.S. prisons hold Ramzi Youssef, Richard Reid, and the “Blind Sheik” Abdul Rahman, as well as Theodore Kaczynski, Terry Nichols and Ali al-Marri, an al Qaeda sleeper agent convicted earlier this year, who is currently imprisoned at the federal prison in Marion, Ill. None of these sites has ever had an external attack or attempt to free the terrorists held there. And no prisoner has ever escaped from a federal super-max facility.No detainees transferred from Guantanamo to the United States will be released domestically. The president has signed two laws that would prohibit such release.

Both laws include identical provisions barring the release of Guantanamo detainees on U.S. soil.

In the extremely unlikely event a detainee is found not guilty, he will not be released inside the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security has existing authority to hold detainees during extradition and removal proceedings and the president has the authority to continue to hold enemy combatants who present a threat to the United States.

Most in my home state are willing to accept the responsibility of safely and securely incarcerating these terrorists, along with thousands of other federal maximum-security inmates. We’re not scared by vague predictions of escape attempts or terrorists attacks. We trust our military, law enforcement and intelligence community to keep doing what they’ve done bravely and effectively since Sept. 11, 2001 — namely, protect the citizens of this country.

Durbin is the Senate majority whip.