Friday, November 16, 2007

The Hardin prison -- still not out of the woods

We mentioned back in April that we were glad that the new Hardin detention facility was going to be open for business, helping the local economy in that part of the state -- a part of the state that needs a boost.

We noted at the time that rumors had been making the rounds about politics playing a role in jeopardizing the financial viability of the facility -- but that we were glad it seemed to be turning out OK in spite of it all.

Apparently we spoke too soon, since the facility is now trying to get permission to house out-of-state inmates ("post-conviction felons on a short-term basis of no more than two years") in order to make ends meet. Charles Johnson, in his piece, alludes to the political change of course that put the Hardin facility in unexpectedly dire straits:

Tom McKerlick of the Two Rivers Authority, Hardin's economic development arm that owns the facility, said officials believed the project had the support of former state Corrections Director Bill Slaughter. But he said it lacks the support of Director Mike Ferriter, who took over the state agency in July 2006.

In addition, U.S. Marshal Dwight MacKay of Montana had told them the U.S. Marshals Service was interested in space at the Hardin facility, but, as it turned out, the private prison in Shelby got the contract.

"Quite honestly, we were told by the Marshals Service and the state, you build it and we will come," (Hardin city attorney Rebecca)Convery said.

She said jail has lined up some short-term contracts from out of state, but the Corrections Department won't allow them.

Yes, that's right -- a private prison (owned by Corrections Corporation of America) in Shelby ended up getting the U.S. Marshals contract over a city-owned prison in Hardin, even though the latter had apparently been led to believe that it would get the contract. I guess this is the sort of thing one needs to get in writing from the feds.

And the supply of state prisoners directed Hardin's way apparently hasn't met the expectations that were raised when the facility was planned. This is part of the reason why the state GOP noted that Corrections Corporation of America executives are donors to a certain statewide campaign.

To the extent that any of this is connected, well, to the victors go the spoils, as the saying goes. Too bad the people of Hardin got caught in the middle of this one, but that's politics. The legislature can help that city in the coming session by clearly allowing the facility to go forward with its plan to house some out-of-state inmates.

One hopes that legislators of both parties, especially from Billings and eastern MT, can come to some agreement on this. Prisons aren't exactly most people's idea of the ideal growth industry for a state, but the facilities are needed, this one is built, and the state needs to help it be successful.

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