With the unraveling of the deal for the shadowy American Private Police Force to take over and populate an empty jail in Hardin, Montana, it's pretty clear that the small city got played by an ex-con and his (supposed) private security firm.
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But an investigation by TPMmuckraker into how Hardin ended up with the 92,000 square foot facility in the first place suggests that, long before "low-level card shark" Michael Hilton ever came to town, Hardin officials had already been taken for a ride by a far more powerful set of players: a well-organized consortium of private companies headquartered around the country, which specializes in pitching speculative and risky prison projects to local governments desperate for jobs.
The projects have generated multi-million dollar profits for the companies involved, but often haven't created the anticipated payoff for the communities, and have left a string of failed or failing prisons in their wake.
"They look for an impoverished town that's desperate," says Frank Smith of the Private Corrections Institute, a Florida-based group that opposes prison privatization. "They come in looking very impressive, saying, 'We'll make money rain from the skies.' In fact, they don't care whether it works or not."