Hardin Has Gitmo Aspirations

By Kellyn Brown

Few towns are as welcoming to felons as Hardin, Montana. Residents there have pleaded with Gov. Brian Schweitzer to send any and all criminals to their town. And since that hasn’t worked out, they have turned to alleged terrorists to fill their empty prison by recently proposing shipping accused members of Al-Qaeda to Eastern Montana if the Obama Administration closes the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Last week, the Hardin City Council unanimously endorsed the idea of Gitmo North.

It sounds crazy because it is. Why would anyone want to be the new Gitmo, a detention camp much maligned for its harsh conditions? Well, it’s important to note this wasn’t Hardin’s original plan. The 460-bed jail was built with hopes of housing criminals from out of state, but the attorney general ruled that such a proposal violated state law and the governor said he couldn’t rewrite it. But when a judge ruled that the facility could take out-of-staters, and Montana said it wouldn’t fight the ruling, it appeared that Hardin was poised to get what it wanted most: bad guys.

But that hasn’t happened. First Wyoming officials said they wouldn’t send their inmates north because it was concerned with lockdown areas at the facility. No other states have stepped forward with cash and criminals. With a declining prison population, the state of Montana doesn’t need the space and Gallatin County, which is sending its jail inmates to other facilities while it builds a new one of its own, won’t use Hardin’s either. Gallatin County Sheriff Jim Cashell called Hardin’s Two Rivers space, “basically a warehouse” and was especially concerned about the 24-inmate rooms.

Without a suitor, the Two Rivers Authority has become increasingly desperate as its facility, which was built as an economic engine, lies vacant and the economy has continued to deteriorate. Big Horn County, of which Hardin is the seat, has a 10.4 percent unemployment rate, the highest in Eastern Montana. So who can blame Greg Smith, Two Rivers executive director, for floating the crazy idea of shipping Gitmo terrorists to Montana? Well, Sen. Max Baucus, for one.

As soon as the local media began reporting on Hardin’s hopes to lockup Al-Qaeda members, Baucus worked hard to knock down the proposal. An e-mail his office sent out last week blared: “Baucus: Don’t Bring Terrorists to Montana.” Federal law enforcement appear to agree that it’s a poor fit and U.S. Marshall Dwight MacKay pointed out the obvious: “These are not the normal Joe Six-Pack meth users.”

Montana is a tiny state in a big nation, and unfortunately, our fellow countrymen often identify us by what little reference points make national news. Does a state once infamous as the home of the Unabomber, and which increasingly bases a good chunk of its economy on tourism, want to be knows as that place in the West with all the accused terrorists?

That hasn’t deterred Smith, who has continued to put a positive spin on Montana as the new Guantanamo Bay. For one, Smith said the facility can easily be upgraded to higher security and if there was an escape, he pointed out that there are few places to hide in the predominately homogeneous population surrounding the facility – fleeing members of Al-Qaeda would apparently stick out on the Montana prairie.

Smith is making his case for a Gitmo North to the national media. He’s talked to MSNBC, appeared on “Good Morning America” and talked to Alan Colmes, formerly of Fox’s “Hannity and Colmes.”

I find some irony in the timing of Smith’s plea, since Kalispell recently had its own divisive debate over a proposed halfway house on the south side of town. Nearby residents have decried the location and worry about declining property values and a potential escape. Of course, the state is making Kalispell build the center out of obligation rather than economic stimulus. But once this Gitmo idea goes away, I wonder if Hardin will be so desperate as to plead for our “Joe Six-Pack meth users” in lieu of a new prerelease center. It’s an idea no more outlandish than Gitmo North.

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