- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

MARION, Ill. | Once the nation’s most secure prisons, the federal lockup in southern Illinois, has housed everyone from spies to a Colombian druglord to dapper mob boss John Gotti.

Now the mayor of Marion hopes to roll out the welcome mat for a new set of accused criminals: terrorism suspects now held at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

While other cities across the United States have balked at taking in any of the more than 200 detainees from the infamous lockup in Cuba that President Obama hopes to shutter, Marion is part of a small contingent seeking out the prisoners - and the money and jobs they might bring.

“We have the facility, and I say: Bring them on,” Mayor Robert Butler said.

Mr. Butler would have to clear many hurdles before that would happen, chief among them persuading the Bureau of Prisons to restore his town’s medium-security prison to its former high-security status. Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, has asked the bureau to study housing Guantanamo detainees at super maximum-security prisons and possibly returning the Marion facility to that status.

Marion and other communities such as Thomson, Ill., Hardin, Mont., and Florence, Colo., are bucking a trend that has mostly seen politicians cry “not in my backyard” since Mr. Obama announced in January that he wanted to close the Navy-run detention site, making good on a campaign pledge.

Capitol Hill opponents have criticized Mr. Obama for planning to empty the facility early next year without first detailing what to do with its detainees. Congress has blocked the administration from spending any money this year to imprison them in the United States - which in turn could slow or even halt Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo by Jan. 21.

Some prisoners already have been transferred to other countries, and the Obama administration is negotiating with foreign leaders to accept others.

But relocating Guantanamo’s prisoners to U.S. soil has been thorny partly because the nation’s federal prisons already are near capacity. For now, the Marion prison has more than 930 inmates and a couple dozen empty beds, spokesman Tom Werlich said.

Neither the Bureau of Prisons nor Mr. Werlich would speculate whether any of the sites would be able to accommodate Guantanamo’s inmates.

But these hurdles haven’t stopped Mr. Butler from dreaming of bringing back about 100 corrections jobs that were lost when the prison, which replaced San Francisco’s famed Alcatraz in 1963 as the nation’s most secure, lowered its security level some years ago.

Marion could have competition.

In tiny, economically distressed Hardin, Mont., officials figure a brand-new, empty medium-security jail built two years ago for $27 million stands ready to have Guantanamo’s displaced fill many of its 460 beds - even though the state’s congressional delegation thinks it is a bad idea. Town leaders say the jail, conceived as a holding facility for drunks and other scofflaws, could be fortified with a couple of guard towers and razor wire.

Many residents in Florence, Colo., also have spoken in favor of housing some of the Guantanamo detainees at the nearby federal supermax prison, which Colorado’s Democratic governor, Bill Ritter Jr., has called “well-suited” for the task.

In Thomson, in western Illinois, the high-tech, maximum-security wing of a prison completed in 2001 at a cost of $140 million remains unopened. Jerry Hebeler, the village’s president, says he would welcome Guantanamo detainees to pine away in some of the wing’s 1,600 cells.

At the same time, many towns with federal prisons and their representatives in Congress have made it clear they do not want to inherit any Guantanamo transplants. Lawmakers have filed bills to keep detainees out of their states, with reasons ranging from inadequate prison space to the proximity to high-population centers.

Mr. Butler said Marion and other cities cannot afford to post “Keep Out” signs for accused terrorists.

“You’ve got people who are enemies of the nation, and you’ve got to hold onto them,” he said. “We need to put them someplace where they can’t get out and do harm. I think this would be as good of a place as any.”

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