Two Rivers jail

The Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility in Hardin remains empty. The 464-bed facility was built in 2006 with $27 million in bonds and has collected significant debt since then.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Hardin's vacant private prison will get another look from Big Horn County, which is again searching for options to alleviate its ailing jail facility.

After voters rejected a bond proposal to expand the Big Horn County Jail last fall, officials will again include the Two Rivers Detention Facility in its discussion.

“I think our community — our county — all see that facility there unused," said Big Horn County Commissioner George Real Bird III. "We’d have to probably do a thorough walk-through.”

But those involved in the facility's future are leaving the city and county in the dark, adding to the uncertainty.

County residents voted down a $6.6 million bond in November to expand its jail facility. Big Horn County Sheriff Frank Simpson said that, like others in Montana, the jail consistently exceeds capacity.

The jail, built for 34 inmates, has averaged about 47 and has reached 59, he said.

Real Bird III said the county plans to take some action, so they're looking for other ways to add somewhere close to 100 beds to the jail.

The 464-bed Two Rivers Detention Facility sits empty across town from the county jail. It was built in 2006 with $27 million in bonds and has collected significant debt since then as it sat empty.

While the private prison facility was deemed too large and costly for the county to purchase outright, it's still in the conversation. But few people know what's going on with Two Rivers.

Late last year, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs began negotiating a lease to take over the facility as a regional detention center for Native American inmates. The reopening of the prison would bring jobs to the economically depressed area.

A BIA spokeswoman confirmed in February that a lease was in the works and estimated for April. Since then, the agency has not responded to multiple inquiries about any potential deal.

On the local end, Two Rivers Economic Development Director Jeff McDowell has not responded to any inquiries about the facility.

The fate of the facility remains a mystery to local officials.

“We do need a jail," Simpson said on Monday. "That one would take a considerable amount of work to get it up to our standards — state standards.”

Counties, on the advice of the Montana Association of Counties, have for years turned down opportunities to relieve jail overcrowding by sending inmates to the Hardin facility. 

All of that puts Big Horn County in a tough spot. Real Bird III said that the next jail proposal will also need the support of voters. And because the last proposal failed, the county might need to try something different.

“It's going back down to 'what do the people want?'" Real Bird III said. "What do we have available and what is the Big Horn County public willing to commit in terms of bonds toward the facility?”

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General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.