BILLINGS – The Two Rivers jail in Hardin, which is struggling to find inmate contracts for revenue, is now in standby mode after its cells emptied this week.
"The population did drop to zero this morning," jail warden Ken Keller said Monday.
The jail saw as many as 250 inmates at its peak since it started normal operation in the fall of 2014, but the number has followed a jagged curve. By November, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs dropped its contract with the jail, and the population dropped to nine.
By December, the jail reported an average of 25 inmates, largely through an agreement with Williams County in North Dakota.
The county has been sending overflow female inmates from its Williston jail to Hardin. But now the county is set to expand its own facility, and Hardin jail officials are still waiting for the BIA to return with a new deal.
With no inmates to oversee, the jail has sent most of its employees home. Keller said that they've kept six security officers on the schedule, and the four administrators continue to work. There were about 39 employees a month ago.
The inmate search has been a continual problem for the jail since it opened in 2007. The facility sat empty for seven years until its operational company, Emerald Correctional Management, inked the contract with the BIA.
That provided the most inmates, who were brought in from 18 tribes in multiple states. That included the Crow Tribe's use of the Hardin facility as its only jail.
By the end of October, the contract ended, and the BIA pulled all of the inmates from Hardin.
The BIA has not responded since Nov. 30 to questions about the negotiation.
The jail contracted with Williams County in November. The facility in Williston had been facing overcrowding problems, and officials needed to alleviate its female inmate quarters, which were bursting at the seams.
"They left me no choice when they did the jail inspection," said Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching. "I had to move them."
Busching said that the agreement with Hardin has been working out well, but a plan is already in place to expand the Williams County jail by 108 beds. He said that crews will be "turning dirt in the spring" with hopes to be operational in the summer of 2017.
Keller and his staff have been working to pick up other small contracts, but they still hold hope for the BIA. The jail makes money according to the number of inmates, but the facility has never come close to its capacity of 464.
The BIA paid $76 per inmate, per day. Williams County pays about the same, Busching said.
The jail is still a long way off from paying down a massive debt. Two Rivers Authority, the economic development arm of the city of Hardin, used $27 million in bonds to build the facility.
Through years of vacancy, Two Rivers amassed alarming amounts of interest atop the bonds. In December, the outstanding debt hovered around $40 million.
Officials with Two Rivers and the city of Hardin have said that Hardin residents have no direct obligation to the debt because Two Rivers issued the bonds and local taxpayers are not the bondholders.
Still, Two Rivers has suffered from the stagnancy of its main project – the Hardin jail. As a part of the city, Hardin has bailed out Two Rivers with hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to data obtained from the city.
Hardin has paid $582,595 to Two Rivers since 2004, the documents show. About 45 percent of that money was paid before the jail opened in mid-2007.
Since then, Hardin has made periodic appropriations to an economic development division that has not accounted for much revenue. Two Rivers had more than $388,000 in expenses in its 2014 fiscal year, according to city documents. It made $197 in revenue over the same period.
A regular part of jail life is that the inmate population can change daily. Through the contract with Williams County, prisoners could trickle in at any time.
"That's the way things run right now," Keller said. "And we ran into a little bit of it last year, too."
But the real wait is with the BIA, whose contract is the only large item in consideration right now. Though Montana counties have faced widespread jail overcrowding, the Montana Association of Counties has declined to send people to the Hardin facility.
Once touted as a potential employer of more than 100 locals, the Hardin jail hopes to restore a few dozen.
"We had to do some layoffs with a bunch of the staff," Keller said. "And almost all of them, the majority of them, kept their uniforms. They're just waiting for the call to come back to work."