The Two Rivers Detention Facility in Hardin won't reopen in January, as previously estimated, but federal officials are reviewing a lease on the building.
For more than a year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been working toward a lease with the detention facility. The building is owned by the Two Rivers Authority, which is Hardin's economic development arm.
The lease is being reviewed by the Government Services Administration, an agency that helps to manage government property, including real estate.
"The Two Rivers lease package is at GSA, and it can take up to 60 days for the review and approval process since this is a lease proposal for, I believe, over 10,000 square feet," said BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling in an email.
That much square footage requires GSA review, she said. The BIA is hoping for a decision from the agency by the end of March.
Two Rivers first confirmed negotiations for a BIA lease in November 2016. The BIA said in February 2017 that a signed lease was anticipated by April 2017.
In November, under questioning from Sen. Steve Daines, Director of Indian Affairs Bryan Rice told a Senate committee that he expected to open the prison in January 2018 and that the GSA review would be "fast-tracked."
Daines' questioning was sparked by a letter from Crow Tribal Judge Leroy Not Afraid, who said Crow detainees were being sent to the jail in Lame Deer in the absence of the Two Rivers prison. He called that facility "illegally overcrowded."
The Crow Reservation doesn't have its own detention facility.
A review by the Bureau of Justice Statistics said that Lame Deer's jail has held more than triple the number of people its design allows. Overcrowding has been a constant concern there since the 1990s.
While some, like Not Afraid, hope the Two Rivers facility will alleviate overcrowded jails, others see the prison's reopening as part of a larger trend in Native American imprisonment.
"The forced imprisonment of our people by the government continues with the incarceration of our people — our communities," said Cheryl Polacek Birdhat, athletic director at Little Big Horn College. "Our traditional concepts of justice, governance, sustenance and health cannot survive when our people are behind bars."
Her comments were made through ACLU of Montana, which in recent months weighed in against the reopening of the Two Rivers prison. In a memo on the prison, ACLU said that the BIA's operation of the prison would incentivize more arrests of tribal members.
Previous operational contracts at the Two Rivers prison, including one with the BIA, paid according to the number of inmates.
Questions to the ACLU of Montana weren't returned by press time.
The Two Rivers Detention Facility has had a rocky run since its opening in 2007. The 464-bed facility was touted as a potential provider of more than 100 jobs for the area.
Darling, the BIA spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the bureau has corrections workers in Crow Agency who will be "utilized" at Two Rivers once it's opened.
Initially, the BIA expects to employ up to 30 staff members, she said.