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DOJ Bypasses Congress and Purchases Thomson Facility

As discussed hereand here, competing Congressional delegations, along with the House Appropriations Committee, have been engaged in a longstanding struggle over the use of prison-related funds. At the heart of the debate was the purchase of an Illinois state maximum-security prison, the Thomson Correctional Center, that was built in 2001 but never opened (i.e., was never activated or went online). As reported in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere (see hereand here), the Justice Department, at the White House’s direction, has bypassed Capitol Hill and purchased the Thomson facility, a move that has election undertones:


At President Obama’s direction, the Justice Department purchased a never-opened state prison on Tuesday, cutting a $165-million check to cash-strapped Illinois and bypassing the objections of a powerful Republican congressman who had blocked the sale.
“At this point, the president had to intervene and do this directly. I hope people understand he’s doing it for his state,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois’ senior senator and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. Durbin acknowledged that it was “rare” to bypass a high-ranking House Appropriations Committee member to proceed with the purchase of Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois.[…]
Illinois is safely in Obama’s column in next month’s election. But the federal prison at Thomson is expected to draw workers and related business from neighboring Iowa — a swing state where Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are battling.
The prison purchase, Wolf said, “directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire.”
The political uproar surrounding the move has drawn interest from various blogs that one does not typically associate with prison issues (see hereand here), including Sunlen Miller’s at ABC News:
Citing 38 percent overcrowding rates in federal prisons, Holder says in the letter to Chairman Frank Wolf, R-Va., of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science that no Guantanamo Bay suspects would reside at the desperately needed Thomson facility.
Still, Republicans cast the decision as a unilateral move by the administration, one that Congress has opposed.
“The unilateral decision to purchase the Thomson Prison – even though Congress has repeatedly opposed the Obama administration’s effort to use taxpayer funds to do so – underscores the administration’s desire to move forward and bring these detainees to U.S. soil,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday.
The Justice Department will buy the prison from the state of Illinois for $165 million. Holder noted that building a new facility could cost as much as $400 million. The funds for the purchase will be obtained from DOJ seizures in asset-forfeiture cases. The Thomson prison could hold up to 2,800 inmates, according to Justice Department officials.
“The administration is acutely aware of BOP’s need for the facility and the department’s inability to reach a resolution of the matter with you. Under these circumstances, the administration has decided to proceed with the purchase,” AG Holder wrote Tuesday to Rep. Wolf.
“Thomson is still desperately needed to reduce our current high level of overcrowding. And Thomson is specifically needed to house inmates particularly those appropriate for “administrative maximum,” Holder wrote in his letter, making reference to the highest security level in the Bureau of Prisons, “administrative maximum.”
A Government Accountability Office report released in September noted that Bureau of Prisons facilities are severely overcrowded with double- and triple-stacked bunk beds.