Illinois Governor Pat Quinn famously defended adapting Chicago’s school-zone “red light” cameras to detect speeders by saying, “If you save even one life, you are saving the whole world.”
While Quinn’s admonition was a noble one, opponents of the invasive cameras suspected the cameras were more about collecting (revenue) than saving (potentially, lives).
Now we are told that equally pure intentions are in play as the State of Illinois finalizes the sale of its unoccupied Thomson Correctional Center to the federal government, which is paying a reported $165 million for the sprawling, 146-acre prison opened to great fanfare more than a decade ago.
By turning the keys over to the feds, advocates Quinn and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin assure us we’ll be saving more than 1,000 people from the perils of unemployment as they fill the many jobs required to operate the prison. And what about the short-term infusion of $165 million into the ailing Illinois economy, not to mention the longer term forecast of economic upside in the neighborhood of $200 million annually? (What is $165 million as part of a remedy for the state’s $271-billion debt? A nick, dent or a grain of sand?)
When supporters add to the feel-good narrative the nugget that potentially 1,600 bad guys will be taken out of overcrowded federal prisons elsewhere and sent to state-of-the-art Thomson, what’s not love? This certainly sounds like a world-saver if ever there was one.
But just as speed deterring cameras can be assailed as a “big brother” intrusion into the lives of law abiding motorists (nailed for going 26 in a 25 MPH zone), the Thomson prison is wrought with the potential to fall short of its supposed fairytale ending.
In fact, even under new management Thomson still very much remains a highly visible white elephant, a monument to short sighted government negligence of late 1990s/early 2000s Illinois. Keep in mind, this $140 million “jewel” became, in essence, the catalyst for a $165 million federal bailout, which is even worse than it sounds.
The facility has an appraised value of $220 million. The U.S. government is stealing it. Illinois taxpayers have helplessly watched for a decade as hundreds of millions of our dollars have been sucked down a black hole to keep Thomson from falling into disrepair (but at the same time holding zero prisoners), and now we’re expected celebrate the sale to Uncle Sam at a deep discount.
Meanwhile, in Washington, there is skepticism bubbling to the surface about why the Obama administration is willing to take the Thomson prison off the state’s hands. It can’t be a pre-election sweetener to sway voters. For a state awash in red financial ink, Illinois is politically true blue.
So what is going on, exactly? Is Illinois being gamed (in a turning of the tables on Illinois’ renowned legislative gamers in Springfield)?
At least one member of the U.S. House of Representatives thinks so. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky sees the purchase of Thomson as “a back-door move”. He says it rejects the “will of Congress and the American people” by laying the groundwork to relocate Guantanamo Bay detainees held because of their ties to terrorist groups.
When such a transfer came up in 2009, public backlash forced the Obama White House to back down even as Illinois legislators pushed for it to go through to hasten the unloading of Thomson’s costly upkeep.
Rather than pursuing the lofty goal of saving the world, perhaps Gov. Quinn and Illinois lawmakers should be a bit more practical. A start would be not giving away valuable state assets at fire-sale prices in exchange for easy money, and the potential of transforming an Illinois prison 150 miles from Chicago into Gitmo North.