Hardin jail backers meet with governor’s staff

By Matt Gouras
Helena, Montana (AP) 3-08

Backers of an empty, $27 million jail in Hardin rallied and asked Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s staff for help in finding inmates for the project.

Administration officials reiterated that there are no inmates to send to the jail, which was built without a contract for state prisoners.

The group said they need the governor’s help because Attorney General Mike McGrath has said state law bans such jails from signing contracts for out-of-state prisoners. The group is suing, hoping to reverse that decision.

The group said they can’t get federal prisoners under McGrath’s opinion, and they have been unable to get local county inmates for the Two Rivers Detention Center. At the same time, the state has been working to reduce its prison population and has no plans to offer contracts for more prison beds.

Two bus loads of Hardin-area residents traveled to the Capitol to plead with the governor. They held signs such as “Governor, hear our prayers.”

Crow Agency resident David A. Miller said he believes Schweitzer is avoiding them. He told Hal Harper, Schweitzer’s policy adviser, they want the governor to look at the jail.

“That would go a long way for us,” he said.

Harper said the governor would look at the jail.

The Schweitzer administration has focused on building treatment facilities and increasing probation and parole enforcement as a way of decreasing the prison population and saving money.

A failure to bring in revenues from the 464-bed jail could leave private investors on the hook for the project if the bonds used to build it can’t be paid off.

The jail needs at least 250 inmates to make its opening economically feasible.

Greg Smith, executive director of the Two Rivers Authority, said the group followed what it believed to be the procedures in place and at least wants Schweitzer’s help in securing deals with neighboring counties.

He said jail backers also dispute new Department of Corrections estimates that it won’t need more prison space. Smith said projections from just two years ago used by jail backers showed the prison population would expand.

When it was proposed, the jail was touted as Hardin’s largest economic development project since a sugar factory was built there in the 1930s. The city of 3,500 sits on the edge of the Crow reservation in Big Horn County, a community where nearly one-in-three people live in poverty.

Smith said the Hardin jail may bid for a sex-offender treatment facility the Department of Corrections is expected to issue a contract for.