Montana town lobbies to turn empty prison into 'Gitmo North'

Desperate to fill its new jail with prisoners, a down-on-its luck Montana community hopes Washington will use it to house terrorists.

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HARDIN, MONTANA // When President Barack Obama ordered that Guantánamo Bay be closed within a year and established a commission to determine where its several hundred inmates should go, Americans across the country declared: "Not in my back yard." But folks in this down-on-its-luck town in Montana took a different attitude: "Bring 'em' on," they said. Hardin is home to a gleaming new US$27 million (Dh99m) detention centre that has sat empty since it was completed in 2007. The Two Rivers Authority, Hardin's economic development arm, built the 8,500 square metre complex believing the state needed more prison beds, and that a detention centre would bring the town much-needed jobs. Even before the US slid into recession, Hardin suffered 10.7 per cent unemployment and a poverty rate about twice the national average. Since the downturn, joblessness has shot up to nearly 15 per cent, according to the mayor, Ronald Adams, with the average annual household income hovering at just $24,500. "Our main street is suffering, with shops closing every month," said Carla Colestead, a member of the city council. "We need jobs here."

The empty prison just adds to Hardin's woes. Its construction was financed by a Texas consortium through the sale of municipal bonds, which came due for payment in May, putting the town in default. Desperate to fill the facility, the Two Rivers Authority (TRA), put forward a proposal to become "Gitmo North". Hardin's city council passed the proposal 5-0, and sent a letter to Mr Obama. "We have a facility that is available and ready to use," said Greg Smith, the TRA director. "We feel we have an opportunity to help the United States and the rest of the world."

The plan has brought a stampede of media to Hardin, a sleepy town of 3,400 where most residents know each other by name. Journalists have come from as far as Slovakia and Chile to report the story, which has also been covered by major American news outlets including Time and Newsweek. However, four months since Hardin made its bid for the Gitmo detainees, there have been no calls from Washington, even though last week the task force crafting the Obama administration's new policy on terrorism detainees told the US president that it needed as much as six more months to figure out where to send them.

Officials in Montana, a state known for its cowboys and seemingly endless horizon, have thrown cold water on the proposal. "We're not going to bring al Qa'eda to Big Sky Country - no way, not on my watch," said Max Baucus, a Democrat senator. Brian Schweitzer, the governor, dismissed the idea that the Hardin facility was up to the task of housing the Guantanamo inmates. Corrections experts have said the jail's layout - with 72 single or double cells and 20 dormitory-style cells - was designed for medium-security prisoners, not terror detainees.

"I'm not going to pretend this is Supermax," said Mr Smith, referring to the maximum security federal prison in Colorado that's home to the World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui, known as the 20th hijacker in the September 11 attacks. "But our facility could be re-fitted," he said. "At a time when most Americans are saying 'not in my backyard', this is a sparsely populated area and we have a community that supports it. That's huge."

Many Americans initially applauded Mr Obama's decision to close Guantanamo, which came to be seen as a symbol of the Bush administration's disregard for human rights and the Geneva Conventions. Yet the decision to close the facility has raised sticky questions about what to do with the more than 200 detainees still held there. In May, Republican lawmakers in Washington put forward a bill that would prevent them from ever ending up on US soil.

But where some Americans see a potential threat, some have seen dollar signs. Hardin is not the only place that has stuck its hand up for the Guantanamo prisoners. Two towns in Illinois have also made bids for the detainees, and a former Michigan governor recently published an editorial suggesting that the state that's home to the struggling American auto industry could earn billions by taking in the Guantanamo prisoners.

No one in Hardin is exactly jumping for joy at the idea of becoming Gitmo North, but many townspeople say they are desperate for the income it would bring. "By and large, people don't want the Gitmo prisoners here, but we want the prison open," said Joe Malensek, who works at the local hardware shop. "We are open to anything." Previous proposals have included re-outfitting the facility to grow medical marijuana or host paintball tournaments, or turning it into a rehab centre for sex offenders.

"Personally, I'd rather have the terrorists," said Bruce Hammond, as he tucked into a coffee at a local eatery. "They sound like a cleaner bunch."