Martial Law Is Their Business — and Business Sure Is Swell

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The “dream” realized:
The Two Rivers Detention Facility, the proudest achievement of Hardin, Montana’s political class. Sure, it’s empty now, but I’m sure those nice men in the black SUVs can do something about that….

If you build it, they will come.

That would appear to be the business plan of an enigmatic California company called American Police Force (APF), which appears to be effectively taking over the town of Hardin, Montana.

The “it” in question is a large jail facility outside Hardin, Montana, that was built several years ago but thus far remains unused. “They” refers to prisoners to fill said jail — a 114,000 square foot, 464-bed facility. APF has yet to become firmly established in Hardin (pop. 3,400), but the company’s representatives are confident “the place [meaning the jail] would start filling up by 2010.”

At present, the firm is said to be doing “market research,” an ominous prospect, given that it’s in the business of detention. And it has even spoken about the possibility of expanding the jail within a few years.

Say, that is good news — at least for the people on APF’s payroll. Since last Thursday, when company personnel rolled into town in a convoy of black Mercedes SUVs embossed with seals advertising a non-existent “City of Hardin Police Department,” the company’s payroll has increased by at least one, and possibly two, key local figures.

The first to be snapped up was Becky Shay, a former Billings Gazette reporter whose beat included the Hardin jail. Within a day of APF’s arrival, she was hired away from the paper to serve as a $60,000-a-year spokesperson for the company (a pretty hefty salary increase for a local reporter in Montana). So quickly and slickly was this career change made that Shay’s editor didn’t even know she had talked with APF about the position.

Also in “discussions” with APF is Kerri Smith, a finalist in Hardin’s mayoral race and wife of Greg Smith, Executive Director of the Two Rivers Authority (TRA). The TRA is Hardin’s economic development agency, which issued $27 million in bonds to build the jail as a public works project.

In what must be the most ill-conceived piece of civic boosterism ever to assault my senses, the TRA’s webpage presents the Hardin jail — that’s a structure intended to deprive people of their freedom, remember — as the poetic expression of a cherished dream: A YouTube video proudly displays slides of the jail set to the unbearable strains of Russell Watson’s wretched ballad “Faith of the Heart” (the musical accompaniment is heard on the TRA’s “Detention Center” webpage):

Yes, there’s nothing quite like an effeminate power ballad to capture the pure aesthetic grace of a detention camp ringed by barbed wire.

Apparently, the “long road” to building that jail didn’t end in prosperity. Since the finished jail has remained empty, the bonds have gone into default. At one point, Hardin’s city government indicated it would accept relocated detainees from Gitmo; this prompted a legal battle between the city and the Montana state government.


Yeah, these guys look legit: What could possibly go wrong here?

Last March, APF was incorporated in California. Shortly thereafter it began talks with Hardin city officials and the TRA.

City officials eventually announced an agreement with the mysterious firm that would bring in $2.6 million for use of the jail, in addition to an “investment” of $23 million to build a new training facility for military and police (which are assumed to be part of one integrated coercive apparatus, of course) on the same TRA-owned property.

The deal — which was publicly announced although the specifics were never publicly disclosed — is supposedly a cornucopia of civic benefits: New computers for the schools; a homeless shelter; a fleet of Mercedes patrol cars for the envisioned city police force; donations to the local food pantry; an animal shelter; gold-plated fixtures for the Mayor’s executive washroom. OK, I made that last one up. I think.

TRA Executive Director Greg Smith, whose wife is in discussions for a position with APF, helped negotiate the deal. Immediately after it was finished, he was put on “administrative leave,” and went to ground. (Calls from Pro Libertate to Mr. Smith’s number at the TRA were not returned.)

What appears to be happening here — and until relevant details are pried out of the prehensile grip of the people running things, we can’t know for sure — is nothing less than a corporatist-style military coup: the takeover of a small town in Montana by a politically connected, federally subsidized paramilitary organization.

At a press conference a few days ago, Becky Shay grandly announced that “The decision is the name of the parent company will not be released.”

Suspicions were immediately aroused that APF is a tentacle of the corporatist mercenary company formerly known as Blackwater, but now doing business under the odd name Xe (pronounced “Zee”). However, a press spokeswoman for Xe informed Pro Libertate that “We have no connection to that company, and had never heard of it” prior to recent developments in Montana.

Hardin may well be the first of many economically devastated communities to be given a lifeline by the burgeoning military-homeland security-prison-industrial complex. Lifelines of that kind can quickly become nooses.

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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