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Privately-run Montana Jail Remains Mostly Empty Since 2007

by Christopher Zoukis

In an odd twist in this age of prison and jail overcrowding, the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility (TRRDF) in Hardin, Montana has had an awfully difficult time finding prisoners to fill its beds. Opened in mid-2007 as an intended economic boon for the area, the jail, which is overseen by the Two Rivers Authority (TRA), the economic development arm of the City of Hardin, has not been able to obtain enough contracts to cover interest payments on bonds used to build the $27 million facility, much less break even or generate profit. As PLN has repeatedly reported over the years, this has left city officials scrambling to locate prisoners for almost a decade. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.42; March 2011, p.34; Dec. 2009, p.1].

The situation is dire for Hardin. The facility sat vacant for seven years until TRA entered into a contract with Louisiana-based Emerald Correctional Management to operate the jail in
May 2014.

Under Emerald, TRRDF, which has a capacity of 464 beds, housed just 250 prisoners under a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Until November 1, 2015, it only housed Native American detainees.

That contract, the facility’s largest since it opened, was canceled on October 31, 2015 due to BIA budgetary restraints. Through early 2016, TRRDF and Emerald limped along with a small number of prisoners (around twenty or less) imported from nearby jurisdictions, such as Williams County, North Dakota.

Emerald, which had been pursuing a renegotiation of the BIA contract, suspended its operations at TRRDF in April 2016, and by September had withdrawn from involvement with the facility.

The average TRRDF population during 2015 was just 150. Between 200 and 250 prisoners are needed to fulfill the TRA’s interest payments on municipal bonds issued for the jail’s construction (bonds that have been in default since 2008), and a minimum population of 350 is needed to generate profit. While the BIA paid Hardin $76 per detainee per day, that didn’t make much of a dent in the jail’s debt. As a result of interest payments, which the city had been largely unable to make, the $27 million facility now costs around $40 million.

While the BIA contract was not renewed, TRA executive director Jeffrey S. McDowell, who has been paid “on a limited basis” since March 2015, was optimistic. He explained, “We could fill that place tomorrow if Yellowstone County, for example, sent their excess inmates over.”

According to McDowell, the TRA has been in discussions with a number of neighboring counties and state prison systems in an effort to secure contracts. Thus far he has been largely unsuccessful. Issues related to TRRDF’s construction, proximity to other communities and even potential legal hurdles to housing prisoners from other jurisdictions have dogged the facility since it first opened.

In early 2016, as TRA and Emerald were seeking prisoners to fill the empty Hardin jail, overtures were made to neighboring Yellowstone County, Montana. At that time, the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, operated by the county’s sheriff’s office, was holding roughly 500 prisoners despite having a maximum capacity of 286.

TRA and Emerald proposed that Yellowstone County could send its overflow prisoners to TRRDF at a rate of $68 per prisoner per day. Nevertheless, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder, who had toured the Hardin facility, expressed opposition to the proposal, citing inadequate daylight in the jail and other problems related to indirect supervision of prisoners. Further, he noted that housing prisoners at TRRDF, even at $60 per day, would cost Yellowstone County $2.2 million per year. As those costs would accumulate to $11 million over the first five years, Linder recommended that the county invest in expanding its own jail infrastructure rather than exporting prisoners.

As such, the Yellowstone County deal never materialized. And following the departure of Emerald Correctional Management, TRRDF again sits empty on the plains outlying Hardin – a failed moneymaking scheme that, thus far, has only resulted in increasing debts.