Politicians Are Portraying 'Gitmo North' as a Terrific Local Jobs Program -- Don't Count On It
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.
But do new prisons really provide such an economic gift to the communities that host them? The evidence is mixed.
Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, scoffs at the claim that Thomson will bring an economic surge to the region. "Three thousand jobs is ridiculous," he told AlterNet. "A two-thousand bed prison typically will employ around five hundred to seven hundred people." There are "the spin-off jobs -- people employed by
diners, Walmarts, etc.," but in both cases, "often the locals don't get the jobs because they are not qualified." This will certainly apply to Thomson -- unless we are meant to believe that "the most secure maximum security prison in our country of all time" (in the words of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn) will hire a large swath of the local unemployed. "Prisons do require employees and these will be federal employees with decent salaries and benefits," Wright says. But "building prisons as an economic development tool has been mixed."
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, who has researched the economic effects of prisons on small towns, says that economic promises made by local politicians often sound better than they actually are. "In recent years many small-town local leaders have pushed for new prison construction as a form of economic development and job creation," he told AlterNet. "In practice, such projects are not very successful in stimulating local economies, for several reasons.
"First, jobs at the prison do not necessarily go to locals, who in many cases may not have the proper qualifications. Instead, prison staff often commute from large distances. In turn, this means they are not buying houses near the prison, nor spending much food or recreation money in the local town since they are just commuting back and forth to work. Likewise, provision of food services and other supplies often is contracted from providers at a great distance from the town. Finally, establishing a locality as a 'prison town' may detract from efforts to attract other forms of economic development or tourism, thus minimizing any long-term economic benefits."
On that last point, it's hard to imagine that Thomson, whose slim Wikipedia profile boasts the claim to fame "Melon Capital of the World," won't be swallowed whole by the facility many have already dubbed "Gitmo North." It is already defined by the empty supermax prison -- and it sits a short distance away from another notorious facility, "Blackwater USA North," the local training ground for the infamous mercenary force.
'Prison Boosters In Rural America Should Be Careful What They Wish For'
A number of reports released in the past few years years have cast serious doubts on the claims that prisons will automatically breathe new economic life into depressed regions. Nevertheless, the perception that prisons equal jobs remains firmly intact.
Part of this might be wishful thinking. For people outside these mostly rural areas, it's hard to conceive of just how deep-seated these beliefs can be. In an article titled "Don't Build it Here -- The Hype Versus the Reality of Prisons and Local Employment," sociologists Clayton Mosher, Gregory Hooks and Peter Wood wrote: "Belief in the positive economic impact of prisons is so strong that a town in Illinois composed a rap song and purchased television advertising as part of a public relations blitz for legislators deciding where to locate a prison. In Texas, students in a Sunday school class reportedly got on their knees and prayed that a new prison would open in their area."
In Tamms, Illinois, home to the brutal Tamms supermax prison, which holds its prisoners in solitary confinement nearly 24 hours a day, "a billboard for the local bank promised 'super-max-imum savings,' while a local restaurant offered the 'supermax burger' on its menu. A billboard outside Tamms displays the message 'Welcome to Tamms, the Home of the Supermax -- Thank You Governor Edgar.'"
Yet years after such prisons were constructed, there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence that they resulted in overwhelming economic benefits. (In the case of Thomson, the prison generated plenty of economic-stimulus buzz when it was first being constructed, only to sit, empty, when the state realized it could not afford to run it.)
"Despite the prevailing wisdom regarding prisons as economic panaceas, evidence suggests that prison boosters in rural America should be careful what they wish for," wrote public policy analyst and prison expert Tracy Huling in her essay, "Building a Prison Economy In Rural America."
The majority of public prison jobs ... do not go to people already living in the community. Higher-paying management and correctional officer jobs in public prisons come with educational and experience requirements which many rural residents do not have ... [According to Ruth Gilmore, a professor at UC-Berkeley] ... less than 20% of jobs on average go to current residents of a town with a new state prison. While over time that percentage increases, it is below 40% for all of California's new rural prison towns.
The findings of Gilmore's study in California are echoed in reports from disappointed local officials in prison towns across the country. The 750 jobs that a state prison opened in 1999 brought to the tiny rural town of Malone, New York went mostly to people from outside the town because of prison system seniority rules. According to the village's director of the Office of Community Development, "Did we get seven-hundred-fifty jobs? We didn't get a hundred."
Looking at the impact of prisons on employment growth in thousands of U.S. counties between 1969 and 1994, Mosher, Hooks and Wood found that, "for both income per capita and total earnings," employment grew most slowly in rural counties where a new prison was built.
"For non-metropolitan counties -- the counties in which the majority of prisons have been built in recent years and the counties that have typically been the ones competing to attract prisons in order to boost local economic growth -- there is no evidence that prisons have had a positive impact. Neither established or newly built prisons made a significant contribution to employment growth in rural counties."
'Worse Than Guantánamo'?
While bringing prisoners from Guantánamo onto U.S. soil may indeed help the Obama administration close down that monument to lawlessness in Cuba -- a measure now several years overdue -- the reality is that the benefits will be almost purely symbolic. Instead of abolishing Guantánamo's notoriously rigged (if somewhat improved) military commissions process, the Obama administration is importing it onto U.S. soil. Even worse, perhaps, in addition to the prisoners who will be brought to stand trial via military commission -- a process that will take place within the perimeter of the prison -- another group of prisoners will reportedly be brought to Thomson only to remain there indefinitely -- subjects of "preventive detention," a policy Obama first stated his intention of pursuing earlier this year. As Constitutional expert Glenn Greenwald wrote on Tuesday, "What is the point of closing Guantánamo only to replicate its essential framework -- imprisonment without trials -- a few thousand miles to the north?"
Thomson Correctional has already been dubbed "Gitmo North" -- an obvious pejorative among human rights lawyers, but one that has unmistakable political value for the Obama folks. With some Republicans screaming bloody murder about the fact that "terrorists" are being brought onto U.S. soil (an RNC release called it "a risky experiment with America's national security"), those in charge of the measure have repeatedly stressed that this will not be just any supermax prison. As a facility, it will be unprecedented. "This will be the safest prison in America," Sen. Durbin told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday, reminding them that Illinois was the first state in the country to open a federal supermax prison (a dubious distinction to be sure). It is not too cynical to suggest that the term "Gitmo North" will help blunt criticism from the fear-mongering right.
The ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and numerous progressive writers have all expressed their alarm at Obama's announcement this week. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said that it "contradicts everything the president has said about the need for America to return to leading with its values," and warned Congress "to legislate responsibly and not set any policies or precedents for indefinite detention on U.S. soil, or create any violation of the Geneva Conventions." Center for Constitutional Rights Executive Director Vincent Warren pointed out that the Obama administration "has already cleared for release at least 116 of the 210 men who remain at Guantánamo," many of whom "have nowhere to go because they are from countries that routinely engage in torture and other human rights abuses."
"Will they now be subject to inhuman conditions of solitary confinement in a maximum security facility despite the fact that they will never be charged with anything and have been approved for release?" asked Warren. "For them Thomson, Illinois may be worse than Guantánamo."
Activists who for years have been protesting Guantánamo in Washington are already gearing up to take their activities to the Midwest."If moving prisoners to Illinois is a step toward charging, trying, or releasing them, then it is potentially a step in the right direction," says Matt Deloisio of the grassroots group Witness Against Torture. "But if it is a cynical jobs program, and intended … to be the new home for those we have held for years without charge or trial whom we anticipate keeping in 'prolonged detention,' then it is a waste of time."