Gov. Pat Quinn plans to sell the nearby Thomson Correctional Center to the federal government to house detainees and for a maximum-security federal prison, and the public hearing probably will not change that.
Many in Thomson, about 20 miles from Sterling, and other northwest Illinois communities say they welcome the estimated 3,000 jobs that the White House says would be generated by the prison. But opponents say the move is too risky.
"Terrorists would want to hit us to make a point, here in the Midwest, in the American heartland," protester Amanda Norms said before the meeting. "Is a little economic gain worth the risk?"
The director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, tried to allay such fears. He said a new perimeter fence and other measures would make Thomson "the most secure of all federal prisons in the country."
Earlier in the day, members of the media got a glimpse of the prison. Many of its interior common areas, including library and classroom space, are still gleaming eight years after the facility's construction. The outside is more forbidding, with barbed wire atop fences, guard towers and signs with ominous warnings declaring that "inmates approaching incoming aircraft will be shot."
The state built the prison at a cost of $145 million in 2001 in Thomson, a town of some 450 people about 150 miles west of Chicago. But budget problems prevented it from ever fully opening. It has 1,600 cells, but currently houses only about 200 minimum-security inmates, according to state officials.
More than 300 people crowded into a high school auditorium for Tuesday's hearing before Illinois' 12-member Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. About 50 people were scheduled to testify.
The panel could vote on a recommendation to sell the prison that skirts the Mississippi River, but the governor does not have to follow the recommendation and Quinn did not attend the meeting. The sale also doesn't need the Legislature's approval, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said last week.
Opponents groaned and hissed when Quinn's chief operating officer, Jack Levin, said his boss "would never do anything that puts people at risk." He also told the panel that the Thomson facility would be "the most secure federal prison in the nation."
When he finished his two-minute statement someone yelled, "That's a lie."
The uproar prompted a reprimand from the panel's chairman, state Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg.
"This is going to be a long hearing," Schoenberg said, sounding his gavel after one chorus of boos. "It will be even longer without the necessary decorum."
Critics have complained that they were not able to comment to the panel before Quinn, with White House backing, decided earlier this month to sell Thomson to the federal government.
It likely would take until May to complete any sale.
President Obama ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to buy the prison. The decision is an important step toward closing Guantanamo Bay, which has long been a global symbol of the Bush administration's approach to national security.
But its takeover of Thomson won't solve all the administration's Gitmo-related problems. More than 200 detainees will remain at Guantanamo, and the White House faces other legal issues and potential resistance from Congress.