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Michigan Town Weighs Moving Gitmo Detainees Next Door

September 1, 2009 at 8:20 PM EDT
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As the Obama administration contemplates how to close Guantanamo Bay prison, residents in the small town of Standish, Mich., are considering whether to support one plan under consideration at the White House that would bring suspected terrorists to a local prison.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: A Michigan town reacts to the idea of Guantanamo detainees going to a local prison. The Cuba facility is to be closed down by January.

NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW Chicago reports.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the small cafes of Standish, Michigan, it’s what everyone is talking about. Should the state maximum security prison just outside of town be turned into a federal prison to house detainees from Guantanamo Bay?

The legislature has already voted to reduce the hard-pressed state budget by closing the prison October 1. Longtime Standish residents Mike and Cindy Hinton like the idea of reopening Standish Max as a federal facility.

MIKE HINTON: Well, I think it’s a good idea for the economy of Standish. You know, with the prisoners that are leaving and them closing this, this is a brand-new facility. And it’s been here for a while. And I can understand the people’s concerns about bringing them here, but I think it would be great for Standish. I really do.

CINDY HINTON: Well, I think it’s a good idea. I think the Standish area needs to keep this in — in the area. We know quite a few people that work there. And they need their jobs.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Are you worried about safety?

CINDY HINTON: No, no. They had a — the jail had a prisoner escape like a year ago. And they caught him right away. So, I don’t see where there’s any problems. Nobody’s escaped or anything.

Economic impact

Kevin King
Mayor of Standish, Mich.
It would be devastating if the prison closes down. So, the Gitmo detainees, it's a real viable option for us at this point.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Officials in Standish agree with the Hintons. Like so many Michigan towns, Standish, located 150 miles north of Detroit, has been hard-hit by the auto industry meltdown. Unemployment in the county has hit 25 percent.

Standish Mayor Kevin King says this small town of 1,500 can't afford to have the Standish Max prison shut down.

KEVIN KING, mayor, Standish, Mich.: The water and sewer revenues that we get right now from the prison, about 33 percent of our -- our overall budget. We bring in about $37,000 a month from those revenues. So, it would be devastating if the prison closes down. So, the Gitmo detainees, it's a real viable option for us at this point.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Two hundred and twenty correctional officers currently work at Standish, along with 80 other support personnel.

The officers union estimates that at least 100 to 150 officers throughout the prison system would lose their jobs if Standish Max is closed down. Officials from the Department of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security toured the Standish Max prison facility the second week of August. They made no public statements, but the mayor says they liked what they saw.

KEVIN KING: I was in the meeting with the federal government last week. They sent 23 people to Standish Max to look at the facility. They liked the facility. They thought it would work perfect for them. That's not to say that they're going to go with the facility, but they -- they -- they were approving it from what they had seen.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Standish Max is the only facility that federal officials have toured so far. But other sites, like Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, are under consideration, though there is staunch opposition to the idea there.

That is not the case in Standish, says State Representative Tim Moore.

STATE REP. TIM MOORE, R-Mich.: President Obama has -- has stated that he is not going to force these Guantanamo inmates on a community -- community that does not want them. And from what I have talked to my constituents around the area, this community does want it. They -- they have come to like the prison. It's a big part of the community, a big job provider, a big source of revenue for the town -- or -- the town.

Safety concerns

Jan Ex
I'm not in favor of it at all, not at all.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Standish Max is barely visible from the highway. The nicely landscaped grounds look more like an entrance to a private club than a maximum security prison.

The one-story facility is a little more visible from a country road that runs along the west side of the prison. Jan Ex lives along that gravel road just across from the prison. She stopped on her way to a town hall meeting called to discuss the possibility of Guantanamo Bay prisoners coming to Standish Max.

JAN EX: I'm not in favor of it at all, not at all.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Why not?

JAN EX: We have -- we have been real happy. We -- we kind of fought that prison. And that prison has not been a hindrance to us at all. It's -- it's -- they have made it -- they have kept it nice. They have done good for the community. And I can't see where the federal is going to do that. I -- I don't want to be late for the meeting.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Are you concerned about safety?

JAN EX: A little bit, especially when they talk about parameters, that -- it bothers me. It bothers me a lot.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: You're pretty close.

JAN EX: I'm pretty close. I'm very close.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But have you ever had any problems so far with...

JAN EX: No, we haven't. No, we have never had any problems with the -- with the prison that was there.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And why would this be different?

JAN EX: I don't know. I just don't like the idea of -- of the people coming from Guatemala..

A town divided

Jean Nixon
What chance do we have to fight this if we oppose it? Do we have any chance at all? We're just a small town.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Though many here in Standish say bringing Guantanamo Bay prisoners would help the local economy, most who attended this town meeting say safety concerns outweigh those economic benefits.

ANGELA TOMCYZK: When I see what's happening here, bringing these people who don't belong in America -- even their own countries don't want them -- why are we jeopardizing our families?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The town hall meeting was organized by Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra. Hoekstra, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is also a candidate for governor in Michigan.

REP. PETE HOEKSTRA, R-Mich.: But my primary focus right now is saying, moving these individuals to the United States of America is a bad idea. Keeping Gitmo open is a good idea. It's better from a national security standpoint. It is better from a -- a regional security standpoint.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Several residents were wondering if their voices were being heard in Washington.

JEAN NIXON: We, as a people, what -- what chance do we have to fight this if we oppose it? Do we have any chance at all? We're just a small town. I have a feeling that's why this is being brought here, because we are a small town.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Quite a few in the crowd were current prison guards at Standish Max. Many of them had supported the idea of bringing in Guantanamo detainees, until they found out federal officers and military police would be brought in to oversee the prisoners. Standish guards with under eight years on the job would be out of work.

Guard Dave Armstrong wouldn't lose his job. He has 18 years of seniority. He would be transferred to another prison. He now opposes the plan, saying he fears for the town of Standish.

DAVID ARMSTRONG, correctional officer, Standish Max: Nobody is worried about anyone getting out of the prison. That is definitely secure, whether the military does it or if we did it.

The safety factor, definitely the safety factor of possibly the extremists coming here, their friends. It's -- it would -- it would be way too easy to come to Standish, Michigan, than it is to Gitmo to help. It's plain and simple. And anything and everything would be a target for these people -- kind of people, terrorists.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Village Manager Michael Moran attended the town meeting, but chose not to speak, feeling the meeting was stacked against the idea.

MICHAEL MORAN, village manager, Standish, Mich.: A lot of the people weren't even from Standish. We had a group there called the "Act For Michigan." They're out of Kalamazoo. I have never heard -- heard about them before. I got some of their literature on the Internet. They're very anti -- not only anti-Guantanamo. They're anti-Islam. And it kind of goes downhill from there.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: For Moran, the need for revenue in Standish far outweighs the possibility that Standish would become a terrorist target.

MICHAEL MORAN: I don't think I'm naive enough to think that that doesn't represent some sort of an increased threat for us. But I also have confidence in -- in the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And being an ex-military policeman from the Air Force, I know what they can do and what they can't do. And I -- I -- I feel comfortable that they will protect us.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Moran says, before a final decision is made, federal officials will return to Standish, giving residents another chance to question authorities about what turning its state prison into the new home for Gitmo prisoners will mean to the town.