HARDIN, Mont. –
Hardin, a dusty town of 3,400 people so desperate that it built a $27 million jail a couple of years ago in the vain hope it would be a moneymaker, is offering to house hundreds of Gitmo detainees at the empty, never-used institution.
The medium-security jail was conceived as a holding facility for drunks and other scofflaws, but town leaders said it could be fortified with a couple of guard towers and some more concertina wire. Apart from that, it is a turnkey operation, fully outfitted with everything from cafeteria trays and sweatsocks to 88 surveillance cameras.
"Holy smokes — the amount of soldiers and attorneys it would bring here would be unbelievable," Clint Carleton said as he surveyed his mostly empty restaurant, Three Brothers Pizza. "I'm a lot more worried about some sex offender walking my streets than a guy that's a world-class terrorist. He's not going to escape, pop into the IGA (supermarket), grab a six-pack and go sit in the park."
After Hardin's six-member council passed a resolution last month in favor of taking the Guantanamo detainees, Montana's congressional delegation was quick to pledge it would never happen.
Notwithstanding the reputation of Montanans as Second Amendment-loving gun owners, they said that putting terrorists on Montana soil could invite attacks from the detainees' sympathizers.
"These Gitmo guys, they're a scary bunch," said Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat. "You've got to realize what you're getting into."
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer said this week that it is every state's obligation to do its part in addressing terrorism. But he dismissed Hardin's jail as not up to the task.
A White House spokesman on Thursday declined to comment on Hardin's proposal and said there has been no decision on what to do with the detainees.
The jail's No. 1 promoter, Greg Smith, executive director of Hardin's economic development agency, said the Two Rivers Detention Center could easily be retrofitted to increase security. And while the town hasn't had its own police force since the 1970s, Smith said the jail's well-armed neighbors would constitute an "unofficial redneck patrol."
While some townspeople welcome the idea as a way to produce jobs and put the jail to use, others worry that it would be too dangerous.
One of the jail's neighbors, Bill Eshleman — a 72-year-old retired postal worker who said he keeps his .30-06 hunting rifle loaded and ready — said the detainees would invite trouble, and he would rather see them sent back where they came from.
But he joked that his rifle was "very accurate," and backed up the claim by pointing to a pronghorn antelope head propped along his fenceline, a trophy from last hunting season.
His wife, Clara, squirmed uncomfortably in the face of her husband's bravado, and said she is dead-set against Hardin becoming America's Gitmo. As a matter of civic pride, she said she wants to put bad guys in the jail to relieve the town of what has become a community embarrassment.
"But not the Gitmos," she said. "They're the worst of the worst."
Hardin — situated about an hour's drive from Billings on the edge of the Crow Indian Reservation, not far from the Little Bighorn, where Custer made his last stand — is beset with high unemployment and a poverty rate double the national average. It built the 464-bed jail on spec — that is, with no contracts lined up ahead of time to take prisoners.
Attempts to bring offenders, out-of-state criminals and federal inmates to Hardin have all failed, and the bonds issued to pay for construction are now in default.
Some prison agencies, including the Montana Corrections Department, have said the jail does not meet their design and security standards, in part because of its dormitory-style rooms and lack of an exercise yard. Others said they had no need for the jail or selected a competing proposal.
Inside its concrete walls, orange jumpsuits, rubber sandals and stacks of white tube socks weigh down the shelves of the storeroom. Computers, phones and video monitors line the tables in the control room. In the cafeteria, stacks of plastic trays and cooking utensils wait to be put to use.
Mayor Ron Adams said the jail could generate up to $300,000 a year for Hardin's coffers if it were to open. That is about 20 percent of the town's annual budget. It would also create more than 100 jobs.
Some townspeople — whether they like the idea or not — doubt it will come to pass.
"I saw on the news last night that there are only three prisons in the country that could hold them, maximum-security prisons. So what's this little one-horse deal? There ain't a chance in hell," said Bill Moehr, 77, a former cattle ranch manager who lives next to the jail.
Bonnie Kennedy, a 60-year-old convenience store clerk who also lives next door, chuckled when asked if she thought terrorists would be moving in any time soon.
"Like that's going to ever happen. But it did put us back on the map," she said. "I can't say I like it, but it might get us some interest from somebody who could actually use it."