HELENA - The Gallatin County sheriff, who is renting space in other jails because his is overcrowded, said he would not put inmates in Hardin's Two Rivers Detention Center because it is "basically a warehouse."
Greg Smith, the executive director of the Hardin economic authority, which built the unopened jail, called the sheriff's assessment "unprofessional and unfair."
The comments came in a June 9 letter from Sheriff Jim Cashell to Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Schweitzer invited Cashell and other Montana law enforcement officials to consider contracting with Two Rivers, which has never opened due to a legal battle and last month defaulted on the $27 million in bonds sold to build it.
Cashell, who had earlier toured the jail, said he found several things about the lock-down objectionable. First, he wrote, most of the jail consists of large, 24-inmate rooms. The rooms are guarded from the hallways, not from inside. Cashell said he asked the Two Rivers warden how the center would deal with problems in the unguarded rooms and the warden responded: "We'll gas 'em."
"Each one of those rooms is like a classroom without a teacher in it," Cashell said in an interview Monday.
But he said his most pressing concern was confusion about who is responsible for the jail.
The facility was built by the Two Rivers Development Authority, the economic development arm of the city of Hardin. It was to be run by an out-of-state, for-profit corporation.
Cashell said he was earlier provided with a Two Rivers contract. That document referred to involvement by the "chief of police."
But Hardin has no police force, Cashell wrote in his letter.
Cashell said Monday that he had problems both with the fact that the contract referenced a nonexistent police chief and with the idea that no law enforcement agency was ultimately responsible for Two Rivers.
"That concerns me a lot," he said.
But Two Rivers officials and representatives of the private company that will run the jail said this week that Cashell's concerns are unfounded.
Peter Argeropulos, a senior vice president of CEC, the company now contracted to run the jail, said large inmate rooms like the kind at Two Rivers are used safely in jails and prisons around the country. He said the rooms are designed to be easily monitored from hallways and the guards assigned to those rooms walk past them every 10 minutes or more, so inmates wouldn't have much unsupervised time to cause problems. Guards can also go inside the rooms, he said.
"This model is very prevalent across the country. This isn't something that is unusual in Montana," he said.
Larry Johns, the jail's would-be warden who has not yet moved to Montana but will when the jail opens, said that he "didn't remember saying" exactly: "We'll gas 'em." But he did say that sometimes tear gas or pepper spray can quell a riot and is used as a last resort in the correctional industry.
"You use those to save staff or to prevent serious property damage to your facility," said Johns, who worked as a warden in Texas state prisons before taking jobs in the private correctional industry.
In Texas, Johns said, "We didn't gas them every day. Only during riot situations."
Smith said the contract Cashell had was a "boilerplate" document that had obviously not been adapted to the realities of Hardin, where there is no police force. As for Cashell's concerns that the entity responsible for Two Rivers has no law enforcement agency behind it, Smith said he intended to talk with Yellowstone County and Sheridan, Wyo., officials to see if they would agree to come to Two Rivers' aid if there were a riot.
"I'm not even worried about it," Smith said, adding that the economic development authority might also put together a reserve force of local men and women to come to the jail in an emergency.
Smith said Cashell should have called him to talk about his concerns, not written them in a letter to the governor.
Cashell said he wrote the letter to the governor because it was Schweitzer, not Smith, who asked him to consider housing inmates at Two Rivers.
The 464-bed was built with no contracts in place, but Smith and other jail backers have said they believed the state and federal agencies would contract with them once the jail was completed. That never happened, and Two Rivers began looking to out-of-state inmates to fill the lockdown.
Attorney General Mike McGrath determined that was illegal, which prompted a lawsuit. A Helena judge ruled earlier this month that Two Rivers can take out-of-state inmates.
The state of Wyoming has already said it would not house inmates in Two Rivers because of the design of the building. Wyoming has inmates housed in out-of-state prisons as it builds its own new prison.
Gallatin County sends up to 32 inmates a day to other Montana jails because its own 45-person lockdown can't manage the more than 80 inmates the county is typically responsible for, Cashell said.
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