While the fate of Larch Corrections Center remains unresolved in Olympia, at the minimum-security prison near Yacolt a closure plan ordered by Gov. Chris Gregoire has been put on hold.
The prison’s capacity following a recent expansion stands at 480. As of Monday, the inmate count had dropped to 219. With the numbers plummeting, one 240-unit has been closed.
But the Department of Corrections is now preparing to transfer new inmates into the prison in order to fill out the eight 10-man work crews overseen by the Department of Natural Resources. The crews fight fires, plant trees, thin forest stands and tackle other outdoor projects for government agencies.
“The reason we are taking in new inmates is that we need them to keep the facility going so we can continue to keep the DNR crews operating,” said interim Superintendent Eleanor Verneal. “We have 13 scheduled to come in.”
Some education programs are no longer being offered at Larch, and more than 90 recovering substance abusers who were assigned to a prison-within-a-prison called the Integrity Project have been transferred to three separate prisons in other parts of the state.
Twenty-eight of Larch’s 113 prison employees have transferred to other prisons, and another five are scheduled to transfer in June. Others who had put in for transfers are being allowed to cancel those plans, she said.
Under the governor’s original plan, Larch would have been shut down in phases, with full closure by the end of June.
But Southwest Washington’s legislative delegation united in an all-out effort to keep Larch open, and a financial analysis of the overall state prison reorganization strategy showed the closure might not save as much money as first believed, especially given the cost of providing security 24-7 to a remote, mothballed facility.
The budget plan passed by the House called for closing half of Larch and half of the state prison on McNeil Island, which had been tentatively scheduled to receive most Larch inmates. The Senate budget would close McNeil entirely and restore Larch to its full capacity. But that option now looks unlikely.
A conference committee that is meeting to reconcile the two budgets has not released a final plan. But according to the Tacoma News Tribune, a House-Senate deal is in the works that would shrink the prison on McNeil Island from 1,200 to 256, with a plan for its eventual closure, and keep Larch open with a capacity of 240.
State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, said he has been in close touch with Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove, one of the budget negotiators involved in the deal, and he believes it’s solid. “Larch would continue at half size,” he said.
In the meantime, Larch’s eight field crews are fully deployed, said Tim Walker, a DNR manager based at Larch. Crews are working on fleet maintenance, vegetation control, repair of a Clark County Railroad bridge, and at a plant nursery, he said. The remaining four crews are assigned to a sensitive Forest Service hazardous fuels reduction project near Wind Mountain.
“The crews are busy,” he said. “They go out rain or shine.”
No decisions have been made about what level of staffing Larch would need if it remains at 200 to 240 inmates, Verneal said. In addition to supervision of the living units, “we’ll still have the recreation programs and other programs that will need to be supervised by staff.”
“We have cut by half, which was the plan by April,” she said. “With 240 offenders, we can actually run the facility.”
Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.