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Like many of the small towns across America, Hardin, MT (pop. 4,300) is hurting for jobs these days. It also has a surplus of prime real estate, assuming that anything other than buffalo steaks can be called prime in the microscopic hamlet in southeastern Montana.
Downtown Hardin, not a bustling city center even in good times, is quieter than ever. The Dollar Store reportedly is going out of business and the Mini Mall soon will be shuttered. A few blocks away, a new $27-million detention facility also sits empty.
When they floated some bonds a few years ago to build the Two Rivers Regional Correctional Facility, Hardin’s city fathers hoped the prison would generate employment opportunities beyond the handful of guards that would be needed to keep the local cattle rustlers under lock and key. Obviously, some short-order cooks would be engaged to feed the staff and inmates, and a couple of locksmiths would be on call to keep the latches working. Eventually, perhaps, a Walmart would arrive to provide all the sundries yearned for by a growing population.
It didn’t work out that way. The facility has yet to house any prisoners, even though it was ready to receive them two years ago.
The 464-bed prison has scores of surveillance cameras, a magnetometer, and dozens of orange prison jump suits in a storage room filled with shoes, towels, blankets, razors and underwear. It also has a generous supply of riot helmets, gas masks, batons, shields, and guns for guards. Just no prisoners.
Confronted by a collapsing economy and little prospect of a sudden crime surge, Hardin’s leadership did what Westerners are famous for — they improvised. When he caught wind of the hubbub in Washington over President Obama’s decision to close the infamous prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, Greg Smith, Hardin’s economic development administrator, sprang into action.
While the rest of the country was fixated on the debate over whether to transfer any of the terrorist detainees now housed at Guantanamo into the United States — and most of the members of Congress were shouting an emphatic ”No!” — Smith announced to Hardin’s city council that he had come up with an idea that could solve everybody’s problem.
Let’s take all of the detainees in Guantanamo and bring them here to our prison in Hardin, he declared. ”It would bring jobs. Believe it or not, it would even bring hope and opportunity,” he later told CNN.
Hardin’s prison has single, double, and dorm-style cells, but Smith says it could be modified to keep detainees separated. He points out that because only terror detainees would be housed at Two Rivers, they couldn’t radicalize run-of-the-mill felons. Smith also told CNN that a large dormitory room in the prison, now filled with empty bunk beds, could be converted into a mosque. Smith, who apparently doesnÕt have any correctional facility experience, also claims it would be simple to upgrade the medium-security prison to meet maximum-security standards.
Even more startling than Smith’s proposal was the reaction of Hardin’s city council: they voted 5-0 to endorse the idea.
Since we already are about 14 minutes into Hardin’s 15 minutes of fame, here’s a brief synopsis of what happened next.
Montana’s congressional delegation rose as one and did their best imitation of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s seminal painting, The Scream. When they were able to speak after the initial shock wore off, the state’s two U.S. senators made it clear that Smith’s proposal is a non-starter.
“Housing potential terrorists in Montana is not good for our state,” said Sen. Max Baucus. ”These people stop at nothing. Their primary goal in life, and death, is to destroy America.”
Sen. Jon Tester also weighed in — ”I just don’t think it’s appropriate, that’s all. I don’t think they know what they’re asking for.”
According to CNN, the opinions of Hardin natives are mixed. A sampling taken on North Central Avenue in the heart of downtown Hardin ranged from a waitress who said she would move out if the terrorists moved in, to a manicurist who said bringing the detainees to the poorest county in Montana would create jobs and make the place safer since it would get special attention from law enforcement.
When we last checked, economic development director Smith was offering to give any doubters a free three-day test lockup so they can see for themselves how secure the prison is.
Sorry, Mr. Smith. We enjoy taking economic development tours, but we’ll pass on that one.
We will, however, tip our hat to your moxie and can-do patriotism. And we’re pleased to offer a helpful suggestion for filling Two Rivers if your Guantanamo transfer plan doesn’t work out —
Round up your posse and ride on over to Wall Street, pardner. They got more criminals there than you can shake a lasso at.