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Two Rivers Regional Detention Center

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

The Two Rivers Regional Detention Center, Hardin's troubled private prison, has suspended operations due to the lack of inmates.

Warden Ken Keller said that on April 13, they officially stopped holding prisoners. Employees were sent home, and only Keller and his program manager, Hope Keller, remain in the building.

"There's two of us here," Ken Keller said. "We're keeping the lights on and chugging away."

It's the latest setback in the facility's grim history. For years, the 464-bed facility sat empty. Last fall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs cut its contract with the prison, leaving Two Rivers without its main source of inmates.

By January, the prison had furloughed many of its employees but continued to limp along with a couple dozen inmates. They came from small contracts with individual American Indian tribes and with Williams County, N.D.

The prison gets paid on a per inmate, per day basis through contracts. In the absence of full beds, debt has piled up on the facility, reaching as much as $40 million in December.

The outstanding debt threatens to double the $27 million in bonds originally spent to build the facility.

Emerald Correction Management of Louisiana operates the jail, which is called the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility. The Two Rivers Authority, the economic development arm of the city of Hardin, owns the building as a separate entity.

Without its main economic engine, the Two Rivers Authority has operated at a substantial loss. In 2014, the authority had $97 in revenue against $388,000 in expenses, according to city documents.

“I really have nothing of any value to add to this conversation,” said Jeff McDowell, executive director of the Two Rivers Authority, before hanging up on a reporter.

While McDowell declined to comment, the Two Rivers Authority website has a statement announcing the shutdown, which it deems temporary. The statement also said that Emerald advised Two Rivers that it has responded to negotiation moves by the BIA.

It could take up to 90 days for a contract to be awarded, according to the Two Rivers Authority's statement.

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McDowell gives periodic updates to the Hardin Common Council regarding the prison. The city has kept Two Rivers Authority afloat and paid out $582,595 from 2004 to December 2015. About 45 percent of that money was paid before the jail opened in mid-2007.

Hardin finance officer Michelle Dyckman said that because the building is owned by Two Rivers, it is tax exempt. 

Officials from the prison have made appeals to county officials in Montana, hoping that they will use the Two Rivers Detention Facility to ease county jail overcrowding. So far, there has been no movement toward the private facility.

Additionally, Keller said that he's been working on other small contracts. They recently finalized a deal with the Lummi Nation, which brought small numbers of inmates to Hardin before the facility ceased operation.

As for the BIA contract, Keller said that it's still a waiting game.

"Nobody seems to be clear," he said. "We're working on things."

Officials from Emerald did not immediately respond to calls. Since Nov. 30, the BIA has not responded to periodic questions from The Gazette about contract negotiations.

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General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.