Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has spoken out time and again on the floor of the Capitol in Washington about the injustice of a criminal justice system that has filled America's jails and prisons with more than 2 million people.
But at home with his constituents this week, Durbin praised the imminent arrival of prisoners at a long-dormant facility in a rural corner of the state as key to “the economic future of northern Illinois.”
His words have provoked criticism from some who have long seen Durbin as an important ally in the movement to reform the country’s massive prison system.
“It’s jarring,” said Edwin Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “Senator Durbin played a very pivotal role in readjusting the horrific disparity in powder and crack cocaine sentences and has spoken with great insight about a range of sentencing issues. I hope this doesn’t indicate a change.”
On Twitter, the reactions came fast and furious. “Heartbreaking,” one person tweeted. “We can't get jobs bills or living wages passed, but we can pay to lock people in cages.”
Conservative bloggers also have taken the opportunity to slam Durbin, the Senate Democratic whip, though at least one website seems to have gotten the story wrong. The Daily Caller inaccurately reported on Tuesday that the Obama administration is trying to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the lockup.
Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman for Durbin, argued that the senator's comments are consistent with his efforts to reform the prison system nationwide. The Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois "is not designed to house new prisoners, but existing prisoners that are currently being held in federal maximum security prisons," she said in an email.
The facility will help "alleviate overcrowding in our federal prison system," Mulka added.
Durbin made his controversial remarks during a visit to the prison, alongside Rep. Cheri Bustos (D- Ill.) and other officials. They had gathered to announce the hiring of new warden, Donald Hudson, a 24-year veteran of the federal Bureau of Prisons.
The hiring marks a major step in what Durbin described as “a long, slow journey.” Although construction on the structure ended in 2001, the prison remained empty for years and still operates well under capacity. “The state built the prison and didn’t have any money to operate it,” said Yohnka.
The federal government bought the prison from the state in 2009, and the Obama administration did initially propose holding Guantanamo detainees in the lockup. But Republicans refused to approve funding for the transfers.
Durbin has long condemned the federal prison system in terms not much different from those that have been used to criticize him this week. “Something’s wrong here,” he said in 2012, according to CBS St. Louis. “We are just filling up the prisons,” he said, “and we’ve got to ask ourselves, is this making our country safer?”
In the past, Durbin has addressed the problem with several high-profile pieces of legislation, including the Fair Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder-cocaine offenses, and last year’s Smarter Sentencing Act, which would give judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.
Despite these efforts, he has consistently lauded the Thomson prison as a untapped source of jobs for people in his home state. In March, he and Bustos announced that the federal government had set aside $53 million to open the facility.
“This is the news we’ve been waiting for,” Durbin said at the time. “The funding that the Bureau of Prisons reported to Congress today is a significant investment in the economic future of Northern Illinois.”
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