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US city bids to be new Guantanamo

Hardin, Montana, built a prison to create jobs and kick-start the local economy. But since then it has stood empty and now the city is offering to take inmates no-one else wants - detainees from Guantanamo Bay, reports the BBC's Jonathan Beale.

The Two Rivers Detention Facility
The Two Rivers Detention Facility can hold 464 inmates

Hardin, Montana - population just over 3,000 - is facing hard times.

Its centre is pretty much deserted. Business certainly isn't booming. Even the city's Dollar Store is closing down.

The freight trains still rumble by, but nothing seems to stop at Hardin's station.

A few pedestrians wander aimlessly. All that seems to be missing here is the tumbleweed blowing down Main Street and the whistle of the wind.

It is hardly surprising that Hardin's city council has been desperately looking at ways of reviving its fortunes. But building a prison?

The Two Rivers Detention Facility stands like a large warehouse - surrounded by razor wire fences - just on the edge of Hardin.

Houses are only a few hundred feet away. Not quite Alcatraz. The council raised the money to build the prison in the hope of creating local jobs. It cost $27m (£16.5m) and can hold 464 inmates.

Cells empty

The original plan was to fill the facility with offenders from Montana. But two years on the cells are still empty.

Greg Smith - Hardin's director for economic development - gives me a tour of the empty prison.

He's like an anxious realtor or estate agent desperate to "rent" a property that so far has had no takers. He is using the media to spark a bit of interest. I ask him if it is a white elephant.

"Very white!" he replies. "For us to get out of this we're probably going to have to accept a certain amount of risk".

Greg Smith
Greg Smith says Hardin will have to accept some risk to fill the facility

He adds, "Y'know people aren't lining up to come to Hardin, Montana".

I had noticed.

So Hardin has been working out what level of risk it is prepared to accept to get the prison working.

Someone suggested using the prison for sex offenders.

Then another that it should house Guantanamo detainees.

In the end Hardin council voted unanimously to take the terrorism suspects.

The situation not yet bad enough to want sex offenders, but serious enough to become Guantanamo North. Greg Smith tells me: "We may be poor, but we're not cowards. We can do this!"

The inference is clear - we're not cowards, but the rest of the country may be.

Opinion divided

In the current climate you have to be seen as brave or foolhardy to offer to take detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Hardin is so far the only place in the nation holding up its hand. But even here the issue divides opinion.

Pete, a native American who is repainting a store front, asks me: "How would you like it?" He says it's a "bad idea".

George, who owns the local trading post, seems less inclined to criticise the town's elders but concludes that Hardin is looking for a "more non-violent kind of criminal" than those who have been serving time in Guantanamo without trial.

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But there are voices in favour too. And that's hard to find in the rest of America. Or even in Montana itself.

The state's governor and its two Democratic senators all oppose the plan.

Or in Senator Max Baucus's words: "We're not going to bring al-Qaeda to Big Sky Country. No way, not on my watch."

Most politicians realise that offering to take Guantanamo detainees is not a great way to seek re-election.

In fact the Republican Party has got the Democrats on the run.

The Republicans are paying for TV adverts that raise the alarm about transferring terrorist suspects to the mainland.

One ad - set to dramatic music - shows images of the attacks on 11 September 2001 and the faces of the men who claim to have planned it - now locked up in Cuba.

It poses the question: "Why do we need to close Guantanamo?"

Democratic Congressional leaders have had a sudden attack of nimbyism - Not In My Back Yard.

A few miles from Hardin lies the site of the battle of the Little Bighorn - it is one of the few reasons that a tourist might stumble across the city.

This is where Lt Col George Custer made his last stand against Native American tribes.

None of his men survived to tell the tale. His fatal mistake was to underestimate the strength of the opposition.

On the issue of Guantanamo, is President Barack Obama in danger of doing the same?



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