$40 million debt looms over empty prison in Hardin

Build it and they will come. That's what they did in Hardin, Montana, and shockingly, no one came, for a long time.

I'm referring to the Hardin jail, officially called the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility. It's possibly the only detention facility in the nation that sits empty. We decided to check in on the facility to find out where it's future stands.

Up front, I'll tell you repeated calls to members of the Two Rivers Trade Port Authority went unreturned. However, the facility's warden and program director were gracious enough to speak with me, and take me on a tour.

Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility was built to house 464 inmates. The idea came from the Two Rivers Trade Port Authority, a group created in 2004Vto help revitalize the Hardin area with new, good paying jobs. The facility was completed mid-2007, and it sat empty for seven years. The Port Authority couldn't get a contract with anyone to send prisoners to the facility. Not the state, not the federal government, no one.

And then a stroke of good fortune, or so it seemed. Emerald Correctional Management out of Louisiana took over operations in 2014. Seven years after the facility was completed, the first prisoners arrived, this would have been in August of 2014. At one point, the facility housed 250 prisoners, but by April of 2016, all the prisoners were gone, and once again the facility sits empty.

Bureau of Indian Affairs money ran out, and the remaining prisoners were dispatched elsewhere just last month. At one time there were 18 different tribes represented inside these walls from Montana, Oregon, and the Dakotas.

One has to ask, with prison overcrowding a major problem across this nation, how could it be a prison anywhere in the country could sit completely empty?


The warden at Two Rivers is Ken Keller.

"I don't understand any of it," Ken Keller said. "There's a real need for beds, a lot of places are struggling and it makes no sense that a facility this size, 464 beds, 92,000 square feet we've got all kinds of programs space. We do all kinds of programming. We do not believe housing individuals. The corporate Emerald company is very innovative very forward. We're not the biggest but we don't believe in housing individuals."

And this is not your typical detention facility. Emerald Correctional Management has a reputation for providing dozens of programs aimed at actual rehabilitation, you know, giving prisoners the tools to succeed once their out. 

Hope Keller is responsible for administering those programs at Two Rivers.


"The programs that we use are considered evidence-based programs," Hope Keller said. "We have your management domestic violence, we have some restorative justice programs, drug and alcohol related programs. We use the Hazelton series for that. We use men's work which is geared toward males, and we have thinking for a change on a lot of other really DOJ recommended programs that we use."    


But, no prisoners, no rehabilitation.      

At one point, members of the Port Authority offered to house prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. The idea was nixed by state and federal government. 

The sad part is, the facility appears top notch in just about every respect. It is certainly capable of safely housing prisoners.

Warden Ken Keller says it's unknown how long Emerald will be able to hold onto the facility – that, by the way, cost $27 million to build. The jail is currently $40 million in debt, with the cost of construction and interest payments on the loans. But that is an issue between the facility's bond holders and Emerald. Taxpayers are not affected. Keller says 350 prisoners would be needed to turn a profit. 

There is a ray of hope. There's a new contract proposal under negotiation between Emerald and the BIA. There is optimism an announcement on a deal could occur at any time. 

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