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A few US cities hope for Guantanamo transplants

 In this Nov. 13, 2005, photo  maintenance employees replace a burned out light in a hallway inside the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Ill. Mar...

Guantanamo Detainees Welcome

In this Nov. 13, 2005, photo maintenance employees replace a burned out light in a hallway inside the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Ill. Mar...

Once the nation's most secure prison, 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: Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects.
While other cities across the U.S. have balked at taking in any of the more than 200 detainees from the infamous lockup in Cuba that President Barack 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.
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. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, has asked the bureau to study the issue of housing Guantanamo detainees at super maximum-security prisons and of possibly returning the Marion facility to that status.
Marion and other communities like Thomson, Illinois, Hardin, Montana, and Florence, Colorado, are bucking a trend that has mostly seen politicians cry "not in my backyard" since Obama announced in January that he wanted to close the Navy-run detention site, making good on a campaign pledge.
Congressional critics have criticized Obama's plan to empty the prison early next year without first detailing what to do with its prisoners. Congress has blocked the administration from spending any money this year to imprison the detainees in the United States _ which in turn could slow or even halt Obama's pledge to close the prison 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 Werlich would speculate about whether any of the sites would be able to accommodate Guantanamo's inmates.
But these hurdles haven't stopped Butler from dreaming of bringing back about 100 corrections jobs 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, Montana, 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's 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, Colorado, 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, 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 clear they don't 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.
Butler says Marion and other cities can't 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."
Marion could have an edge over many other locations. Butler figures the prison, which ceded its status as the nation's most secure lockup to Florence in the mid-1990s, can be returned to ultra-secure status far more cheaply than building a new prison or overhauling an existing one. The infrastructure remains, including many now-empty guard towers, and the 900-acre (365-hectare) expanse leaves room for additions.
Though it's unclear what the cost of the upgrades would be, Greg Shadowens _ the head of the union local representing Marion prison workers _ said, "it's a matter of just rearming and remanning the towers, and some staffing levels would have to be readjusted, but that's about it."
"We've housed the worst of the worst without incident. I'm sure with Guantanamo inmates, we could do the same," he said.
Refilling many of the jobs jettisoned under the prison's lower security level could be an economic boon: A corrections officer there averages $52,000 a year, with the starting salary at $40,016. That's huge in a region beset by recent plant closures, including the 1,000-worker Maytag factory in nearby Herrin.
Yet not everyone's so enamored with having terror suspects so close.
As a neighbor of the prison's for nearly a decade, 69-year-old minister Max Johnson considers relocating Guantanamo detainees to Marion "the dumbest idea in the world," and wonders if the prison is up to the security challenge.
At Bennie's Italian restaurant, retired coal miner Don McNail, 59, is a bit queasy about the intentions of family and friends of terror suspects who might come to Marion to visit or stay, fearing "they might be of the same caliber" of the detainees.
Durbin's spokesman, Joe Shoemaker, says there's little reason to fret: "No one is going to release (the terror suspects) into your neighborhoods. You're not going to go into the 7-Eleven and be shoulder to shoulder with (Sept. 11 conspirator) Zacarias Moussaoui."

Updated : 2021-10-19 14:34 GMT+08:00