A new life for Larch

Corrections center escaped closure, but tumultuous 18 months have seen many changes

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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The past 18 months have been a roller-coaster ride for the staff and inmates at Larch Corrections Center, the minimum-security prison in the woods of east Clark County.

As recently as November, Larch faced closure by February 1.

Now, with its future seemingly assured, Larch is going through some changes. Of the prison’s reconstituted staff of 109, nearly half are newcomers, many from much larger prisons. With 480 inmates, it’s at capacity. Security is tighter. The gym is more crowded. There are fewer programs to keep prisoners occupied.

But both veteran staffers and newer arrivals say Larch has come through the fire stronger than ever.

“One thing I can say about the staff that have been here a while is that they have embraced the new staff,” said Larch Superintendent Eleanor Vernell, who arrived at the end of 2009 expecting to preside over the closure and mothballing of the prison. ”Overall, morale is pretty good.”

In December 2009, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced plans to close the prison in order to slash $12.5 million from the Department of Corrections budget. Her decision dealt a body blow to many programs that depended on the prison’s inmate labor.

Larch Camp, which opened in 1956 as a base for inmate crews deployed to reforest the 1902 Yacolt Burn, had built a strong constituency over the years. Local, state and federal agencies had come to count on inmate crews supervised by the Department of Natural Resources to fight fires, restore streams and perform other valuable work in the woods. State legislators from Southwest Washington mounted a full-court press to save Larch.

Longtime staff members faced wrenching decisions about whether to sell their houses and move to the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, a four-hour drive from Vancouver, where jobs were available.

Then, a partial reprieve. Legislators proposed reducing the size of Larch’s inmate population by half, to 240. In March 2010, with the inmate count down to 219, the governor put her closure plan on hold. In April, the Legislature passed a budget bill keeping the prison population at 240.

But in August, as the state’s fiscal condition worsened, closure of Larch was back on the table. Gregoire confirmed that if the state had to close a prison, Larch would be the likely candidate — possibly as soon as October 1.

On Sept. 30, then-Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail announced that Larch would close by Feb. 1, 2011, its facilities would be mothballed, and Larch inmates and staff would be transferred to other prisons across the state.

As Vernell and her staff mobilized for closure, Vail reversed course again. In late November, he announced that closing Larch would not generate enough savings to meet his budget-cutting target. Instead, he said, McNeil Island Corrections Center near Tacoma would close, and Larch would remain open and return to full capacity.

Vernell had two months to rebuild her staff, get new employees trained, and prepare the facility to accept an influx of prisoners, many of them from McNeil.

“The most challenging thing has been getting the staff trained,” she said in an interview at the prison last week. “Half our staff was new. They had to be sent to a six-week training program.”

Permanent staff members had bumping privileges through their union contracts. Transfers to Larch from other prisons were voluntary.

“We put out an email for on-call staff,” Vernell said. “We had to recruit hard and heavy. It wasn’t too hard to recruit because of the economy. But the short turnaround was difficult, because we had to have staff in place when inmates began arriving.”

A few corrections officers who had made the move to Coyote Ridge returned, but others elected to stay. “Some of them liked Eastern Washington,” Vernell said. “They liked the climate, they enjoyed working in a more secure facility.”

The next weeks were a blur. “Once we found out we were going to 480, we were so busy,” Vernell said. “We had to undo everything we’d done.” Windows in the empty inmate dorm had been boarded up. A security fence had been erected. “We had to redo the maintenance work on the building. It was a lot easier closing than opening.”

One big disadvantage of transferring to Larch from others prisons was the commute. In the Puget Sound area, several prisons are within commuting distance. But there’s nothing closer than two hours from Larch.

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Most inmates who were at Larch before the 18-month transition are gone. At least 150 of current inmates transferred from McNeil Island, which held both minimum-security and medium-security prisoners. Many of the transfers don’t get regular visitors because it’s a long trip from Tacoma for their families.

Programs are thin at a prison that previously benefited from a variety of community programs and organizations.

“There is no solution for that right now,” Vernell said. “Because of the transition and the budget cuts, we can’t add programs. They have the yard, the gym, recreation.”

Previously, Larch offered high school completion classes through Clark College. Those classes are expected to return in September.

Larch also lost its Integrity Unit, a successful chemical dependency program in which a special unit of 96 former drug offenders lived separately within the prison, forming a therapeutic community where members held each other accountable for their behavior. That program went to the Clearwater Corrections Center near Olympia.

“We don’t have anything for them,” Vernell said.

Larch is rebuilding its popular forest work crews. It’s up to four 10-man crews. At the end of 2009, it had eight.

But other job opportunities are scarce, and that’s a problem, Vernell said.

“Idleness is always not a good thing,” she said. “We’ve had more infractions this past month. We found four offenders with tobacco,” which is contraband at state prisons. Some inmates have tampered with their urine samples.

Drugs can get into the prison through work crews and visitors. But monitoring of inmates has stepped up.

“We had open management before, where inmates could move around all day,” Vernell said. “Now it’s more controlled. We’re utilizing a call-out system.”

Inmates must update their location every hour, choosing to stay where they are for the next hour or move to another location.

Ronald Raymond, 30, has been at Larch three and a half years. He transferred from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and is serving a sentence for possession of marijuana and possession of a firearm. His release date is Sept. 26.

He’s seen the change in security.

‘“There’s no one here that’s been here longer than me,” he said. “With all the controlled movement, there really is no difference between medium and minimum security now. It doesn’t make a difference whether I’m here or at Walla Walla. All we’re missing is the gun towers.”

Inmates burn up energy on the basketball court, but that can get out of hand.

“At one time, we had a lot of injuries in the gym from inmates playing basketball,” Vernell said. “They play basketball rough. We told them if we have to start monitoring the games, we’ll start monitoring the games.”

Tony Jackson, 27, who is serving a sentence for promoting prostitution, transferred to Larch from Coyote Ridge recently, hoping to be closer to family. Everything’s relative, he says; at Coyote Ridge, which has a population of 2,500, inmates wait years to get a job as a janitor or kitchen worker.

“You have people doing life there, people who aren’t going home for 20 to 30 years,” he said.

At Larch, he was able to pick up a job as a janitor the first week.

• • •

Larch corrections officer James Lewis supervises community work crews. The best thing about the state’s decision to keep Larch open, he says, “is believing there is some longevity in my career again.”

He likes the mix of staff now, likes “having a fresh set of eyes, people who have more experience with security. Things are different here. I wouldn’t say it was lax before, but there are a lot of things you can do better.” Among other changes, all corrections officers carry radios now, with activated panic buttons.

In part, that’s a result of the death of corrections officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Correctional Complex in January. A convicted rapist has been charged with strangling Biendl during a struggle in the prison chapel. Like most prison staff members, she was unarmed.

In response, Gregoire ordered a series of reforms recommended by the National Institute of Corrections, including fitting officers with personal body alarms and giving them pepper spray.

Larch Corrections Counselor Sidney Clark, a representative of Teamsters Local 117, which represents prison employees, called the security changes at Larch “a good step forward,” but he said reforms are still in the early stages.

“Line staff and the union have to play a big role in implementing true safety measures at all of these facilities,” he said. “Let’s have some real safety reform. Nothing runs smoothly unless we monitor and get in there and work with Department of Corrections management.”

Clark says he’s grateful to “the community, the families, the friends, the representatives on both sides of the aisle for stepping up and making it clear how critical it was that we remain open.”

Larch Correctional Sgt. Mark Francis believes that made all the difference.

“Without all the community support we received, I don’t think we would have made it,” he said. “I have never been political, but when your job is on the line, you do what you can to protect it.”

Was political pressure a factor in saving Larch?

”I think it was strictly dollars and cents,” Vernell said. “When they looked at the cost of closing Larch and McNeil, the bottom line was, it was less cost-effective to close Larch.”

What she remembers is that day in November.

“When it looked like Larch was closing, I made the decision to come to Larch and go through the closing. I got to know the staff, to hear them talk about the hardships of the layoff process. When I got the news we were going to stay open, I called the managers. We all walked over to the DNR conference room. It felt really good to give the staff the news.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.