Politicians Are Portraying 'Gitmo North' as a Terrific Local Jobs Program -- Don't Count On It
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The decision announced by the Obama administration this week to transfer some Guantánamo detainees to an empty supermax prison in northwestern Illinois has been portrayed as another step toward finally shutting down Guantánamo. But the more we learn about the government's plans for Thomson Correctional Center, the more it resembles a Bush-era blueprint to turn a rural Illinois community into a microcosm of the "War on Terror."
Located just 15 miles from the Illinois compound operated by the notorious mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater, the prison will be refashioned to replicate some of Guantánamo's worst excesses -- namely, the military commissions process and indefinite "preventive" detention -- and largely staffed by U.S. military forces and well-paid private contractors, who will swallow up a large number of the jobs the project will create. Political rhetoric lauding the economic windfall in store for the residents of Thomson and its surrounding counties ("3,000 jobs" and "more than $1 billion into the local economy," according to Sen. Dick Durbin), may help sell the idea to Americans, but these claims are dubious at best and a distraction from an ugly reality at worst. Guantánamo is not so much being closed, it is being moved -- onto U.S. soil.
Speaking to Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night, Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky praised the economic promise offered by the Thomson project, while also providing an important, if little noticed, caveat. Out of those estimated 3,000 jobs, "Fifteen hundred are going to be military personnel that will move to the area to actually guard the prisoners," she said, adding "but lots of local jobs have been promised."
According to an analysis of the Thomson project by the President's Council of Economic Advisers, once the prison has been fully renovated and upgraded (to what has been described as a "beyond supermax" facility), "in essence, DoD (Department of Defense) and BoP (Bureau of Prisons) will operate two entirely separate facilities side by side." One facility will be run by the Pentagon and will hold an untold number of former Guantánamo prisoners. The other will be run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and will hold 1,500 to 1,600 federal prisoners, to be transferred from overcrowded prisons elsewhere.
On the Pentagon side, the Department of Defense estimates that it will need "between 1,000 and 1,500 employees" to staff its wing of the prison. "One-third of these employees will be government civilian employees or private contractors with annual salaries between $80,000 and $90,000. The other two-thirds of the employees will be military personnel, with salaries of $65,000, which includes a housing allowance."
Not surprisingly, the analysis states: "DoD expects few of its direct hires to come from the local communities."
So what's left for the locals? Lower salaries, for one (with the exception of some prison guard jobs). And once the construction jobs are done, not much; while the economic analysis reports that "local residents will be excellent candidates for 1,240 to 1,410" of the jobs relating to "the modification, opening, and running of the facility," it also states that "in total, BoP expects to hire 448 workers locally." That's a far cry from the 3,000-job figure being thrown around. Although much stock is being placed in "indirect jobs due to increased spending and economic activity," as well as potential teaching jobs for theoretical schools that will accommodate military families who move to the region, these estimates are hardly definite.
In truth, the Obama economic advisers provide a pretty confusing picture, based on estimates and "assumptions" that are likely to change, of what sorts of jobs await Illinois residents thanks to the transfer of prisoners from Guantánamo. But that's not stopping local politicians from running with the narrative that this will be an economic boon. In a region where unemployment hovers around 11 percent, "people are desperate for good jobs," Sen. Durbin told reporters on Tuesday, "… and these jobs are some of the best."
Prisons: The Gift That Keeps On Giving?
As political rhetoric goes, this is hardly a new way to sell a prison project. From New York to Colorado, politicians have been at it for decades.