BILLINGS – An empty jail where promoters tried unsuccessfully to bring Guantanamo Bay terrorism detainees has landed a 10-year operating contract with a private security firm that wants to sharply expand the lockup.
The deal to house hundreds of low- and medium-security inmates in the Hardin jail involves American Police Force, a company with international security operations that has offices in Washington, D.C., and Santa Ana, Calif.
Full terms of the contract were not provided. But Albert Peterson, vice president of Hardin’s Two Rivers Authority, the city’s quasi-public economic development agency, said the agency would receive $5 per prisoner a day and enough additional money to pay off $27 million in bonds still owed on the jail.
Those bonds went into default last year.
The first batch of prisoners most likely would come from California’s state prison system, said Peterson, who also serves as superintendent of Hardin’s public schools.
Two Rivers executive director Greg Smith said federal prisoners also could be housed in the jail, although U.S. Marshal Dwight MacKay said his office had not been contacted about the possibility.
“I don’t know where in the heck they’re getting them from,” MacKay said.
An American Police Force representative who asked to remain anonymous because of security concerns said the existing 464-bed jail would be expanded to include a 102,000 square-foot military and law enforcement training center, homeless shelter, animal shelter and possibly enough beds for as many as 2,000 prisoners.
He said the firm did not yet have contracts for inmates but expected to get at least 1,000 now that it has a place to house prisoners.
He said the firm plans to invest $30 million in new construction at the jail site at the edge of Hardin, a town of 3,500 located about 45 miles southeast of Billings.
That includes at least $17 million for the training center, which is envisioned to offer everything from sniper training to DNA analysis for domestic and international law enforcement and military personnel.
But the operating contract, signed Sept. 4, is limited to the existing jail, said Two Rivers’ Greg Smith.
“All this stuff kind of takes time,” he said. “The focus here to me is on the detention center — get the thing open and run it.”
Smith declined to answer questions about the contract, but said he would make the document public after presenting it to the Hardin city council next Tuesday.
Members of the authority and Hardin officials have spent much of the last two years searching for inmate contracts to no avail. Asked about the likelihood of American Police Force succeeding, Smith said he was confident the first batch of 150 to 200 prisoners would be in place by mid-January.
He said the first payment under the contract is due Sept. 1.
On its Web site, American Police Force lists services ranging from convoy security in war zones such as Iraq to assault weapons sales and investigations into cheating spouses. It is registered as a California corporation, under the name American Private Police Force Org. Inc.
The Hardin jail was built by the Two Rivers Authority as an economic development project in cooperation with a consortium of Texas developers. Its backers had hoped to land contracts to house state and federal inmates.
But it has remained empty after the administration of Gov. Brian Schweitzer said it had no need for the facility and other contracts never materialized.
“Thank you, governor, for turning Hardin down, because now we’ve got something that’s 10 times better,” Peterson said.
The facility’s prior contract operator, CiviGenics, left about six months ago.
Montana Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Anez said his agency was not involved in the deal between Two Rivers and American Police Force.
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