BILLINGS — A private corrections company has reached a tentative deal to turn a long-vacant southeastern Montana jail into a treatment center that would draw federal Bureau of Indian Affairs inmates from across the region, according to company and local officials.
No contracts for inmates are in place, and both sides said details on the proposal still need to be resolved.
The 464-bed Two Rivers Detention Facility in Hardin has gone unused since it was built in 2007 with $27 million in bonds.
Originally intended to spur economic development, the jail rose to notoriety after its backers failed to attract contracts for inmates and desperate Hardin officials offered to take in suspected terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Later, a California man duped officials with a grandiose plan to turn the jail into a military training camp.
Now Emerald Correctional Management of Lafayette, La., has offered a plan that it says could bring the jail’s convoluted saga to an end. The private corrections company previously was among the firms considered to operate the jail when it was first built.
The company’s chief operating officer, Steve Afeman, said Friday that Emerald is pursuing plans to house about 350 inmates at Two Rivers for therapeutic treatment aimed at rehabilitation. The treatments typically last 90 to 100 days, either at the end of an inmate’s sentence or as a stand-alone punishment, Afeman said.
Inmates would come from Native American tribes across the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest. The company is aiming to take in its first inmates by mid-May, although Afeman said that timeline is subject to change based on the results of a job fair planned for April 15 in Hardin.
The jail is owned by Hardin’s economic development agency, Two Rivers Authority.
Jeff McDowell, Two Rivers executive director, said Friday that the tentative contract with Emerald emerged from discussions between the two sides over the past four months.
He declined to release specifics on possible terms of the deal, citing continuing negotiations. But McDowell expressed confidence the proposal would move forward in the near future, allowing the jail to finally break with its difficult history.
“We’re taking this one step at a time,” McDowell said. “If I didn’t think it was going to happen, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Afeman said the company had spoken with representatives of six to eight tribes in recent weeks and received interest in sending inmates to Hardin. Emerald also has reached a memorandum of understanding with the Bureau of Indian Affairs that endorses the company’s plans, he said.
Confirmation of that agreement could not be immediately obtained from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“We don’t have an ironclad written contract,” Afeman said. “You have an agreement to house inmates, an agreement with the tribes that need the services. It’s kind of like building a hotel. You don’t really have a contract with people, but you have what they want in the right spot.”
Licenses and permits from local and state officials will be needed.
Montana Department of Corrections spokeswoman Judy Beck said agency officials have not had any discussions with Emerald to date. Afeman said that process is set to begin next week.
To make sure the jail has the roughly 300 inmates needed to make it economically viable, Afeman said Emerald and Two Rivers will speak with Montana counties and the U.S. Marshals Service about housing some of their inmates.
Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Rod Ostermiller said his office has not had any discussions with the company.
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