BILLINGS – A state judge has ruled that a $27 million jail in Hardin can accept federal or out-of-state prisoners — offering potential relief for a project beset by difficulties since its completion last July.
The publicly financed but privately operated jail has sat empty because it has no contracts for inmates to fill its 464 beds. With no money coming in, the city has been forced to dip into a contingency fund to cover payments on its construction bonds.
Those bonds went into default last month, and the jail risks foreclosure if it remains empty.
City officials had partnered with a Texas firm to build the Two Rivers Detention Facility, touting it as Hardin’s largest economic development project in 70 years. But Attorney General Mike McGrath in December issued an opinion declaring state law bars out-of-state or federal prisoners at county jails such as Two Rivers.
Thursday’s order from District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock in Helena said McGrath and his attorneys misinterpreted the law. Sherlock pointed to Idaho inmates housed at the Sanders County jail in Thompson Falls as evidence Hardin was not treated fairly.
The court order came in a lawsuit filed by the city in response to McGrath’s opinion.
“It’s vindication pure and simple,” said Greg Smith with Hardin’s Two Rivers Authority, the city agency that built the facility. The town of Deer Lodge is also a partner in the project.
State officials have not decided whether to file an appeal, said Bob Anez with the Department of Corrections, one of the defendants in the case.
Sherlock wrote that state law “expresses the legislature’s clear and unambiguous determination that detention centers can house out-of-state felony and misdemeanor inmates.”
The same is true of federal inmates, the judge wrote.
Smith said the city had been awaiting a ruling from Sherlock before stepping up efforts to find prisoners from outside Montana.
“It means we can go out and start marketing the facility to states, counties whatever we need to get enough (prisoners) to get it open,” he said. “It’s probably not going to be happen overnight, but we can start.”
A spokeswoman for McGrath, Lynn Solomon, referred questions to Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office. McGrath is seeking election in November to Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court.
Schweitzer had backed McGrath’s opinion in a March 24 letter to Hardin officials in which he urged the city to find other uses for the jail. On Thursday, Schweitzer spokeswoman Sarah Elliot said the governor was interested in making the project work.
“We didn’t make that interpretation,” she said of McGrath’s opinion barring out-of-state inmates. “They asked for the opinion from the attorney general and he gave it to them.”
Elliot also said the governor’s office had anticipated a possible reversal of McGrath’s opinion. She said he called the governors of Wyoming, Colorado, Washington and Oregon last month to gauge their interest in using the jail.
Wyoming corrections officials later toured the facility and said it did not suit their needs.
The governor had previously suggested the jail could be used to house state sex offenders. Hardin officials said at the time they were wary of the stigma attached to sex offenders.
The city also had spoken with state and federal officials about taking Bureau of Indian Affairs prisoners.
The jail was built at a time when Montana’s prison population was on the decline, dropping 4 percent last year from 3,572 to 3,431. The Two Rivers jail needs at least 250 prisoners to be financially viable.
For the past two months, Hardin covered the facility’s bond payments by drawing off a contingency reserve built into the bonds.
Mike Harling with Municipal Capital Markets, the Texas firm that helped arrange financing, declined to say how long the reserve would last without new revenues. He said only that there was “sufficient time to work out the problem” by finding inmates.
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