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Montana, Michigan Towns Vie to Fill Prisons with Guantanamo Detainees

by David M. Reutter

Despite winning a lawsuit which held that officials in Hardin, Montana could contract to receive out-of-state prisoners, the town’s Two Rivers Detention Facility sits empty and the bonds issued to finance the prison are in default. In a desperate move, Hardin offered to take in prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – also known as “Guantanamo” – which is slated for closure by the Obama administration.

Building prisons to create jobs is a concept that has been regularly adopted by rural communities over the past three decades. With one of the highest poverty rates in the nation and an unemployment rate over 10%, Hardin was in desperate need to find jobs and income for its 3,400 citizens.

Before the town built the $27 million, 464-bed Two Rivers prison, Hardin was assured by the former governor of Montana that the Department of Corrections needed space to house state prisoners. When that deal fell through with the election of a new governor, Hardin sought to contract for out-of-state prisoners. City officials planned to hire CiviGenics to operate the facility.

Their hope was dashed by an Attorney General’s opinion which held that local authorities could not contract to house prisoners from other jurisdictions. Hardin filed suit in state district court to overturn the AG opinion, and succeeded when the court ruled in June 2008 that the Two Rivers facility could incarcerate out-of-state prisoners. See: City of Hardin v. State of Montana, First Judicial District Court, Lewis & Clark County, MT, Case No. BDV-2007-955.

Despite that decision, Hardin officials have been unsuccessful in filling the prison’s empty beds. With President Obama ordering the closure of Guantanamo Bay by January 2010, Hardin offered to take in an estimated 100 maximum-security Guantanamo detainees who cannot be tried or released.

Local residents were resigned to doing whatever it takes to fill the facility to generate jobs. “By and large, people don’t want the Guantanamo prisoners here, but we want the prison open,” stated Joe Malensek, a Hardin business owner. “We are open to anything.”

However, members of Montana’s congressional delegation acted quickly to close that door. “I understand the need to create jobs, but we’re not going to bring Al-Qaeda to Big Sky County – no way, not on my watch,” said U.S. Senator Max Baucus. “I don’t think they know what they’re asking for,” added Senator John Tester. Congress has since passed legislation that prevents Guantanamo detainees from being incarcerated in the U.S.

Nor did Hardin have any luck finding prisoners locally. Sheriff Jim Cashell in nearby Gallatin County refused to house prisoners at the Two Rivers prison, saying it was “basically a warehouse.” The Montana Dept. of Corrections has declined to use the facility despite a May 2009 endorsement by the Corrections Advisory Council to build 920 new prison beds in the state. Prison officials found the open-dorm layout at Two Rivers unsuitable for holding long-term prisoners.

With no prospective contracts to fill the vacant facility, Hardin officials had to lay off Two Rivers’ only two employees. The town defaulted on its construction bonds in May 2008 and was forced to use $900,000 from its reserve fund to make a dept payment. The prison has sat empty for years, which mirrors the empty return to bond investors who mistakenly believed in the axiom that “if you build it, they will come.” The big players in rent a beds, like Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America, realize that building prisons isn’t enough. It requires lobbying, schmoozing and cash donations to politicians to fill empty for profit prison beds. A lesson lost on the officials of Hardin.

Institutional investors that purchased bonds to build the prison include the Lord Abbet High Yield Municipal Bond Fund ($2.5 million), the BlackRock Long-Term Municipal Advantage Trust ($4.1 million) and Pioneer Investments ($2.6 million).

On September 10, 2009, the Associated Press reported that Hardin had signed a preliminary contract to house over 200 prisoners at Two Rivers; the town is partnering with the American Private Police Force Organization, Inc. American Private Police Force has no known track record of operating prisons or jails. The company was incorporated in California in March 2009, and their website went up in May. They claim to have an office in Washington, D.C., but the company is not a registered corporation in D.C. and the address listed on their website is incorrect.

A spokesman for American Private Police Force said he didn’t want his last name used because he was engaged in security work overseas and “didn’t want to get shot.” In their desperation to fill Two Rivers, Hardin officials may have signed up with a shady company that has an even less realistic chance of success than housing prisoners from Guantanamo.

Hardin isn’t the only impoverished town that tried to cash in on imprisoning Guantanamo detainees. Two Illinois cities have made bids, and Standish, Michigan made a similar offer in August 2009.

The unemployment rate in Standish, with a population of 1,500, stands at over 17 percent. “We’ll take the most dangerous prisoners the world has to offer if we have to,” said Paul Piche, a local prison guard. The city is losing 289 jobs with the closure of the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility due to state budget cuts.

However, while residents of the prison-dependent town are worried about their economic survival, even to the point of actively seeking maximum-security prisoners, as in Hardin their elected leaders do not share their concerns. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said she “continues to have concerns about the homeland security implications of relocating Guantanamo detainees to Michigan,” and “is not in favor of moving detainees” to her state.

Whether or not people object to having Guantanamo prisoners in their back yard apparently depends on whose back yard it is, exactly, and how badly they want to maintain the local prison-based economy.

Sources: TIME Magazine, The Bond Buyer,, Associated Press,, Billings Gazette

NOTE: This article was corrected, as it originally included references to Hardin's "Twin Rivers" prison instead of "Two Rivers."

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Related legal case

City of Hardin v. State of Montana