The Montana Town That Wanted to Be Gitmo

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Pat Dawson for Time

The coils of razor wire glint in the prairie sun like silver tumbleweeds piled against the tall chain-link perimeter fences of the forlorn Two Rivers Detention Facility in Hardin, Montana. Two years ago, the town (pop. 3,600) celebrated the completion of the state-of-the-art private jail capable of holding 464 inmates. Convinced that it would provide steady employment for over 100 locals, as well as accompanying economic benefits, the residents financed it through the sale of revenue bonds and turned it over to a for-profit prison-management corporation. On a 40-acre field at the edge of town where pronghorn antelope once grazed, they built it. But nobody came.

Hardin tried to recover. It sued the state for supposed mixed messages of encouragement — even though Montana prohibits the incarceration of prisoners convicted out of state. But though Hardin won the case, Two Rivers stayed empty and the $27 million of bonds went into default a year ago.(See one man's struggle to adjust to life outside of prison.)

And then, a new source of hope appeared. A campaign pledge from President Barack Obama to close the U.S. facility holding suspected terrorists at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, became an executive order. Quickly, the jail's backers made a new pitch. Why not house those 240 detainees at Two Rivers? Hardin's City Council last week passed a resolution to entice the detainees their way, saying they could provide "a safe and secure environment, pending trial and/or deportation." Hardin naturally assumed their federal politicians would lobby their cause. (See behind-the- scenes pictures of President Obama's first 100 days in office.)

Well, once again, Hardin's heart was broken. Reaction from Montana's three-man Congressional delegation was swift and unanimous, but hardly supportive. "I understand the need to create jobs, but we're not going to bring al-Qaeda to Big Sky Country — no way, not on my watch," said Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat. (See pictures from inside the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.)

Many local taxpayers are livid at Hardin officials. "It's been a complete fiasco since the beginning, and I don't see how they built it without any solid contracts," says Mike Carpata, a forester with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as he shopped for reloading supplies at Lammer's Trading Post, where locals and members of the Crow Tribe come to buy guns and ammo, beading supplies, or to sell for quick cash their saddles, buffalo robes and beaded-buckskin ceremonial costumes. But others remain supportive of the jail project — and the enterprise of the town's administrators. The store's fourth-generation owner, George Lammers, noting the drastic difference between subtropical, humid Gitmo and dry, wintry Hardin, says, "This place would be torture for some of those boys." But, he allows, "I think it would be great for all the law enforcement people to be here. It would help our housing market. Our city fathers wanted the economic benefits, but I guess they didn't foresee the political controversies."

For months, correction officers Glyn and Rae Perkins, husband and wife, were the only employees at the 96,000 sq. ft. Two Rivers facility. They were laid off on Jan. 23. "Those of us who were involved had such high hopes," she says. "The state blocked us at every stage. It could've been such a good thing. I sit here now, watching businesses close and people wondering if they'll lose their houses. It's sad. But the idea of housing Gitmo prisoners here just floors me. It would be scary."

It is easy to understand the economic appeal of the project, as the county's unemployment rate hovers around 10% and Hardin's central business district has seen much better days. On a Saturday morning, two 30ish sisters who had been up all night partying, wobbled along the sidewalk then slouched in the sun against one of many vacant storefronts lining Center Avenue. They said they needed a ride out of town and were afraid they might be picked up by the police and jailed, but then laughed with some relief when reminded that the closest lock-up, the Big Horn County Jail, was now so overcrowded that it was turning away misdemeanor offenders.

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See pictures from inside Guantanamo Bay's detention facilities.