Two Rivers Regional Detention Center

The Two Rivers Regional Detention Center in Hardin is seen on Dec. 1, 2015.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

After sitting empty for nearly two years, the Two Rivers Detention Facility in Hardin is set to reopen under Bureau of Indian Affairs management by January, the bureau’s director told a Senate committee recently.

The BIA is finalizing a contract to begin operating the 464-bed facility within the next 90 days, Director of Indian Affairs Bryan Rice said during an Oct. 25 hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Rice’s comments came in response to questioning by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who referenced complaints of overcrowding at a jail on the adjacent Northern Cheyenne Reservation outlined in a letter written by the Crow Tribe’s Chief Judge, Leroy Not Afraid.

“While the lease is being worked on, all of our folks that need that space are being sent to Lame Deer,” Rice told the committee, of which both of Montana’s senators are members. “They're even being sent to other areas, so we see it as a critical thing that needs to get done. The lease is on its last review out of the bureau to be sent to (the Government Services Administration). There's an expectation that will be fast-tracked.”

Not Afraid’s May 8 letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke stated the bureau was detaining Crow members in “illegally overcrowded detention centers in the state and Wyoming.” He claimed that 26 inmates from the Crow Tribe and another 63 Northern Cheyenne tribal members were at the time being held in Lame Deer’s jail, which was designed with a 19-inmate capacity.

“Our complaints to the BIA have been ignored, and the BIA has failed and refused to make immediate and necessary changes to correct these problems,” Not Afraid wrote in his letter, adding that the situation raised “serious civil rights and constitutional issues.”

Hardin residents have been whispering about the jail's reopening for months, since the jail closed in April 2016 and the private operator, Emerald Correctional Management, cut ties soon after. 

A BIA spokeswoman said in February 2017 that a lease would be signed by April. The agency has been silent on the empty jail since.

On Wednesday, Not Afraid said that at least six different jails from Cut Bank, Montana to Yankton, South Dakota, currently house inmates sentenced in the Crow Tribe’s courts. No jails exist on the 2.2 million-acre Crow Reservation, although tribal members had previously been detained at the Two Rivers facility before it closed to Montana tribes in 2015.

“First and foremost, it’s in the interest of justice that our tribal members are brought home in the preservation of their rights,” he said. “If someone has been found guilty by a judge or a jury and they’re serving out a sentence, what better (than) to have family, to have access and visitation for tribal members to assist in their recovery?”

Not Afraid is also concerned about potential liability for the tribe when it has to transport prisoners hundreds of miles to other jails, he added.

Unlike the empty detention facility in Hardin, he said the jail in Lame Deer lacks the ability to allow inmates to appear for arraignments by video. Those appearances require detainees to be transported more than 40 miles each way to the courthouse in Crow Agency.

Reporter Matt Hudson contributed to this story.

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Morning Reporter

General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.