MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg is sticking up for the brand new and vacant Hardin jail, while taking issue with a state plan to possibly build its own new prison. Rehberg sent a letter Tuesday to Gov. Brian Schweitzer critical of a coming recommendation from a Corrections Department advisory committee. That long-term plan says a new 900-bed prison in Billings may be needed 10 or more years down the road to deal with projected inmate population growth. "It's a little hard to understand why the state is considering building new prisons while a brand new facility sits empty in Hardin," Rehberg, who used to be lieutenant governor under Marc Racicot, said in a statement. "Hardin wants the prisoners. Apparently Montana needs the space. Let's cut through the bureaucracy and sit down together to find a workable solution." The Schweitzer administration was quick to pen its own response, releasing later Tuesday a letter addressed to Rehberg. Department of Corrections Director Mike Ferriter said the state does not have the large number of extra prisoners right now that Hardin would need. And he said the Hardin facility is a jail, And is not suitably built for the long-term imprisonment of inmates. Ferriter said most of the Hardin jail consists of pods designed to hold up to two dozen inmates, a layout the state says lacks the sufficient security of prison cells for one or two inmates. He said DOC consultants found the facility would need "extensive remodeling" to meet state standards. Ferriter said Rehberg should focus his congressional efforts on persuading the federal government to house some of its inmates in Hardin. The dormant Hardin detention facility was built in the name of economic development, but has so far been unable to reel in any prison contracts. The jail has even said it would take Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees, an idea that was snuffed out by state leaders but continues to draw international attention. Greg Smith, executive director of Hardin's Two Rivers Authority, said the jail still would pursue Guantanamo detainees if they are brought to the states. Smith said he was even planning interviews today with the Al-Jazeera network. But he said he was excited by Rehberg's efforts to get the state to take another look at the city's empty jail. Efforts to attract inmates from other states, including federal inmates, have so far failed. "To me, it's a wonderful solution to a problem," Smith said. Smith said the Hardin jail could be used on a near-term basis to help deal with a prison population the Department of Corrections Advisory Panel is expecting to grow. The panel's long-term plan, expected to be put in final form later this summer after public comment, says plans for a new jail could be years away. And panel members recognized there could be little appetite to pay for such a building. "We know there is an immediate need there, and I believe it would take some of the pressure off the DOC right there to look at our facility," Smith said. The advisory panel's preliminary recommendation, approved last week, called for a new, 256-inmate female prison in the Billings area, 152 beds for inmates with mental health and medical problems, 512 beds for male prisoners and a residential sex offender treatment program for up to 116 people. Costs were not provided, but the number of prison beds was roughly in line with the first phase of the consultant's proposal, which was priced at $243 million.