U.S. Senate Committee Calls for A.S.A.P. Activation of Thomson Prison
Potentially, the prison could be functional by Fall 2015
By TOM KOCAL | Prairie Advocate News
JULY 18, 2013 – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos (IL-17) announced a step in the right direction: the Senate Appropriations Committee, of which Durbin is a member, approved funding for the activation of the Thomson Correctional facility in Thomson, Illinois at the same level that was requested by President Obama in his fiscal year 2014 budget proposal last April. The Illinois members plan to meet with officials from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons soon to discuss the activation of Thomson.
“Activating Thomson prison to help relieve overcrowding in our prison system is a priority for President Obama, it’s a priority for the Senate and it is a priority for the Illinois delegation,” said Durbin. “We still have a long way to go to bring this funding to Illinois, but we are making progress every day. Congresswoman Bustos and I will continue working closely to make certain that funding is made available as soon as possible to create over 1,100 jobs and bring millions of dollars in new economic activity to Illinois.”
“I’m thrilled that we are yet another step closer to the opening of Thomson prison,” said Bustos. “Thomson prison would not only alleviate overcrowding in our prison system, but its opening will be an economic boon for our region of Illinois and I’m pleased that both the President and the U.S. Senate have made this a priority. I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Durbin and the Bureau of Prisons to continue our progress in keeping this job-creating facility on track to open.”
What about the other prisons?
Currently, the Thomson facility is the only maximum security penitentiary already built that the BOP has considered activating. According to Colin Milligan, Communications Director for Congresswoman Bustos, “Using the BOP’s classification, Thomson and a prison in Yazoo, Mississippi are in the process of being activated as ‘high-security’ prisons, the term that BOP uses essentially for maximum security prisons. Thomson is newly purchased and needs upgrades since it has been idle for so long. Yazoo is being constructed.”
Will that fact have a positive influence in the decision-making process, since there is more of an immediate need for high-security facilities vs. minimum security in the federal prison system?
“The decision has already been made by the Bureau of Prisons to activate Thomson – that was signified by their purchase of the facility to relieve serious overcrowding,” Milligan stated. “High security prison facilities are currently operating at around 54% over capacity and growing. What needs to happen next is Congressional funding. The Senate today signaled its intent to support the Bureau of Prisons’ decision.
“I think that when the BOP was deciding whether to purchase and activate the prison, the fact that Thomson comes into the BOP system as already constructed, which provides a significant cost savings to taxpayers, was high on the list. In fact, the Bureau of Prisons estimated that it would take up to $190 million to acquire and renovate Thomson for use as a 1,600 cell high security institution – $165 million to purchase and $25 million for upgrades. To construct a similar facility to relieve overcrowding would have cost more than $300 million and would include only 700-800 cells.”
The Senate’s FY2014 Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies appropriations bill includes $166.3 million to begin the activation of Thomson prison and two other prisons, acquire 1,000 private contract beds and to expand a program to reduce recidivism rates. This amount would likely cover the entire cost of upgrades and renovations to the facility.
The full activation of Thomson prison is expected to take two years at a cost of $25 million in fiscal year 2014 for upgrades and renovations and $168 million in fiscal year 2015 for equipment and staffing. Thursday’s legislation includes language that would require the Bureau of Prisons to notify Congress if they are not able to adhere to that activation schedule.
“That is a typical request of Congressional Appropriators,” said Milligan. “It essentially means that if the Bureau of Prisons, for some reason, can’t carry out what Congress has requested in the time frame they’ve been given, they must notify Congress. So in this case, if there is any change to the Thomson schedule for activation after this funding is appropriated, Senator Durbin will be notified.”
When WILL the prison open?
Christina Mulka, Deputy Communications Director for Sen. Durbin in Washington D.C., confirmed that the Fiscal Year for 2013 ends on September 30. The $25 million in fiscal year 2014 for upgrades and renovations is the first step.
“Too hard to set a date on when the upgrades could begin. Here’s what still has to happen: full Senate must take up the bill and pass it, House must pass their version, the differences will have to be worked out and then both the House and Senate must pass the compromise version and then on to the President for signature.
“We are hoping this happens as quickly as possible – the full Senate is planning to take up the first FY2014 appropriations bill for consideration next week, so the process is moving along.”
That means if all goes as planned, “as quickly as possible” could be October 1 of this year. Step 2: $168 million to equip, staff, and open the prison, is also a bit up in the air. If all goes as presented, what is the soonest the prison could be ready to open and operate?
“Again, tough to put a date on it because lots of factors have to fall into place, but I think you could say that ‘once the FY2014 appropriations bill with funding to upgrade Thomson is signed into law, it will take approximately two years to fully open and operate the prison.’ Of course, all along the way, jobs will be created with construction and staffing, etc.”
That firmly places the earliest opening date as sometime in the fall of 2015.
Potential roadblocks addressed
The constitutional issues pertaining to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and the housing and possible trials of “detainees” brought to the U.S., have not been resolved. Mulka believes it will be soon.
“It is currently illegal to house Guantanamo Bay detainees at facilities in the United States – so that would have to be changed and at this point, there is no plan to do that,” Mulka confirmed. “Something worth noting: Senator Durbin is the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights and on July 24th he will be holding a hearing to examine the national security, fiscal and human rights implications of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The hearing will be the first on this issue since 2009 and comes two months after President Obama’s May 23rd national security speech, in which he announced new steps towards the closure of Guantanamo.”
In October of 2012, when it was announced that the ownership of the facilities was transferred to the Federal Government from the State of Illinois for $165 million, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls the Justice Department budget, opposed the sale because of concerns that President Obama would give the order to move Guantanamo Bay detainees to the Thomson location. Durbin stated that Wolf was still convinced, despite repeated assurances to the contrary by Attorney General Eric Holder, including under oath in a Senate hearing, that the detainees would be moved to the facilities.
But that level of distrust in the Obama Administration is obviously still a sticking point with Wolf, and others in Congress. In a report from The Blaze (www.the blaze.com) on Thursday, the Virginia Republican said that survivors of the Benghazi, Libya terror assault have been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements prohibiting them from speaking out about the deadly attack.
“Some of these new NDAs, as they call them, I have been told were signed as recently as this summer,” Wolf said on the House floor, adding that if accurate, “this would be a stunning revelation.”
The congressman said he was requesting from the CIA, Defense Department and State Department a list of all personnel or contractors asked to sign non-disclosure waivers.
“I do not expect the Obama administration to be forthcoming with answers, but if this Congress — if this Congress — does not ask for the information and compels its delivery the American people will never learn the truth.”
How will this affect the decision to fund - or not - the Thomson facility? Will the 2014 funding still need approval from Chairman Wolf and the House Appropriations committee? Mulka says no.
“The new funding for activation does not need sign off from Congressman Wolf as it did when we were trying to reprogram old funding. New funding needs sign off from both the full Senate and the full House and final signed into law by the President as part of the Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies FY 2014 appropriations bill.
“Our next step for the Senate bill would be a vote by the full Senate. Then that version would go to a Conference Committee with the House version where the differences would be worked out.
“We do not believe at this point that Congressman Wolf will have a change of heart, but we also believe that will no longer be a roadblock as we work to open Thomson prison.
“The bottom-line: this is good news and, though the federal appropriations process doesn’t always follow the straightest path, we are going to do everything possible to keep it moving forward,” Mulka said.
Mulka recommended additional citizen action as well. “Calling members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and making it known how important passing the Senate’s version of the CJS Appropriations bill would be a good place to start.”
Employment Fact Sheet
There are about 120 BOP locations nationwide housing approximately 218,000 Federal offenders and roughly 138,000 staff members.
The main requirements for being a staff member are that you must be a U.S. citizen and must be hired prior to your 37th birthday. There are some exceptions though, primarily within medical fields. The reason for the age cap is that, in order to participate in the law enforcement retirement plan. The maximum age within the BOP system is 57 years old and the person must have 20 years of service to collect their retirement benefits. Another exception is that veterans may be hired after their 37th birthday, as long as they get 20 years in by the age 57.
100% of the staff members are law enforcement officers. That means that at any given time anyone could be assigned to a custody job.
All applicants must pass certain physical requirements. Everyone goes through a background investigation.
Another eligibility requirement that knocks many applicants out of the running is that a credit report is run on all qualified candidates and if a person is behind in payments of loans, utilities, credit cards, etc. they will not be hired. The BOP has, in the past, helped applicants read their credit reports and educate them on how to fix any problems.
Everyone that is hired must pass law enforcement training. Every year every staff member must pass firearms training regardless of their position. All staff members must also pass a physical abilities test.
As long as a person retires with at least 20 years receives health insurance for the rest of their life.
Not all positions require a bachelor’s degree if the applicant has three and one half years of experience, that is “like” a corrections officer. The BOP calls it “meeting and dealing with people.” That experience does not have to have come from a paid position. An additional six months has to be in a supervisory capacity. That could be as simple as coaching a little league team.
Talent Team Partnership
At the February Thomson Village Board meeting, a BOP official stated they would like to hire 60% of the facility’s staff within a one and one half hour local commuting radius. It is their plan to contact each of the communities within that radius to educate them on what jobs will be available, how applicants qualify, etc.
During the last two activations of new BOP facilities they developed something called a Talent Team Partnership. The partnership is defined as stakeholders within the local commuting area that get together and share their resources including funding, staff members, and expertise to maximize the economic development and workforce development of the region.
Generally, before this program they were lucky to hire 32% of their employees within the local commuting area. With the new program they hired 72% of the staff locally. Another economic impact these areas have seen is that their young people now have a career opportunity in their rural community, instead of going off to college and moving away.
For information on BOP careers, the employment process, and current vacancies, visit www.bop.gov/jobs/ and utilize the links provided.
For information about opportunities, regulations, and procedures for selling to the U.S. Government visit the U.S. Government Services Administration (GSA) website at http://www.gsa.gov or call 312-353-5384.