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Aug. 1, 2021

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Changes loom for Larch: State Department of Corrections proposes closing unit

“It’s just like a lose-lose-lose situation. None of us are happy”

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
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(The Columbian files)
(The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

The Washington Department of Corrections has proposed halving the number of beds and reducing staffing at Larch Corrections Center, as part of a larger reorganization of its facilities.

Larch’s Silver Star unit is among 18 living units, across eight state prisons, under consideration for potential closure, according to the DOC.

The minimum-security prison near Yacolt, which opened in 1956, can house 480 men between its two living units: Silver Star and Elkhorn — 240 people in each. In April, the facility had an average daily population of 299.

Other living units identified for possible closure are at Monroe Correctional Complex, Clallam Bay, Coyote Ridge and Olympic corrections centers, Mission Creek and Washington corrections centers for women, and Washington State Penitentiary.

The planned closures come as the DOC has seen a shrinking population, the agency said — a trend that is anticipated to continue with expanding eligibility for its graduated reentry program, reducing the need for prison beds.

Corrections personnel have expressed concerns the closures will result in significant off-loading of inmates into the community, as well as staff reductions at the affected facilities.

No final decisions have been reached yet on the closures, according to the DOC. The agency said it will first reach out to those in custody and their families, union-represented employees and others who may be affected to gather feedback.

Inmate bed vacancies

The reductions were first mentioned in an April 28 memo from the DOC’s Executive Strategy Team on the final legislative budget proposal. (The DOC’s approved operating budget for 2021-23 is $2.532 billion.) One of the highlights was expanding eligibility for its graduated reentry program, which was established in 2018 and allows those who qualify to serve the last portion of their sentence in partial confinement on electronic home monitoring.

Senate Bill 5121, which passed the 2021 legislative session, eliminates the program’s requirements that people first serve at least 12 months of their sentence at a prison and can spend no more than six months in partial confinement. The changes take effect July 25.

According to a May 25 DOC memo, the bill’s passage expands program eligibility to more than 2,600 people in fiscal year 2022 and 3,000 in fiscal year 2023. (However, the agency notes not all will be approved for the program.)

Some people will transfer to partial confinement sooner, and some will participate in the program for longer, resulting in empty prison beds, the April 28 memo states.

Additionally, the DOC said at least 3,600 of its more than 18,000 beds — 20 percent — are already empty throughout its facilities, according to the May 25 memo.

The agency cited several contributing factors brought on, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic: fewer referrals and sentencings by local courts; reduction efforts, such as rapid reentry, furloughs and commutations; and the recent state Supreme Court ruling Blake v. State, that found the state’s felony drug possession law to be unconstitutional, leading to many cases being dismissed.

In an email to The Columbian, the DOC said the living units under consideration for closure were identified as having the least impact to staff and people in custody. No full facility closures are planned.

Units would be “warm-closed,” meaning buildings’ essential functions, such as electricity, heat and water, would be maintained in case they need to be used for future housing. It also allows administrative offices, classrooms and storage areas to be used, according to the DOC.

“These unit closures will occur over a planned six-month time frame to reduce impacts to permanent employees. By managing the reduction in staffing on a gradual basis, increasing staffing provided in the ensuing budget, not filling existing vacancies and using natural attrition, we are confident we will be able to mitigate impacts to permanent employees,” the May 25 memo reads.

The DOC did not provide a timeline for completing the closure plan, however.

Demand to bargain

DOC officials say fewer employees will be affected by reductions because of an earlier pause in hiring for the prison division.

But union representatives argue there is already a staffing shortage across the DOC.

After receiving the DOC’s formal notice, Teamsters Local 117, the union representing Washington corrections officers, filed a demand to bargain over the impact of the proposed unit closures. Dates for bargaining have not yet been scheduled, according to President Michelle Woodrow.

“Our goal in those negotiations will be to insist that the DOC maintain existing personnel to address deficient staffing levels,” Woodrow said in an emailed statement. “There is no reason the proposed closures should result in layoffs of existing staff.”

She cited an external staffing model audit done in 2019 that found DOC is understaffed in several areas.

“The report concluded that hundreds of additional positions in various classifications are required beyond existing levels to safely operate our state’s prisons,” Woodrow said.

“If DOC is serious about reducing recidivism rates, they will invest in staff safety and proven strategies to train, rehabilitate and humanely house the incarcerated population. These goals cannot be achieved without first addressing staffing shortages in the prisons,” she added.

Future of Larch

Larch’s Silver Star and Elkhorn units were built in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Each have 17 staff members. There are currently 142 people housed in the Silver Star unit and 130 in the Elkhorn unit, according to the DOC.

“In conversations with (Larch Corrections Center) leadership about potential unit closures, LCC preferred Silver Star as the unit proposed for warm closure,” the DOC said in an email.

Because no decisions have been reached on the closures, DOC said the impact of closing the Silver Star unit is unknown — including how Larch’s programs, such as its Department of Natural Resources work crews and animal socialization and adoption, will be affected.

The uncertainty is disconcerting for Stephanie Sanderson and her boyfriend, who’s housed in the Silver Star unit.

If the unit closes, they don’t know if he will be moved to the Elkhorn unit or another facility. He isn’t eligible to apply for the graduated reentry program until May 2022, Sanderson said.

“We both are the type of people not to stress over what we can’t control. … But it doesn’t sit well when you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said in a phone interview.

Her boyfriend has focused on education as part of his rehabilitation, Sanderson said, and she worries that if he’s moved to another facility, it may not have the same programs.

“It would break my heart if he worked this hard the last couple of years and then can’t finish it,” she said.

Sanderson, who’s on Larch’s Local Family Council and the Statewide Family Council, said the latter gathered information from families on how they felt about the proposed closures. She missed that meeting but plans to submit her concerns, she said.

Toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the DOC took action to reduce the inmate population to allow for social distancing. However, Larch still saw a massive COVID-19 outbreak at the beginning of the year.

Sanderson said she’s concerned that closing some living units will result in overcrowding in others.

“It’s just like a lose-lose-lose situation. None of us are happy,” she said. “We understand there are budget cuts, and they’re trying to save money … but there’s a give and take. And when all you’re doing is take, take, take, it’s just not right; they’re human beings.”

Sanderson said the notion that expanding the graduated reentry program will mean the need for fewer beds is great, in theory.

“But I want to see that happen first,” she said. She wonders if the DOC has enough manpower to support the expanded program.

An electronic document titled “List of Unit Closures (based on multiple criteria),” outlines six groups with various proposals. The document states it was introduced in July 2020 and includes input from experts, superintendents, prisons staff, budget, health services, capital and capacity.

Potential impacts to Larch are shown under six of the exploratory options.

For Larch, it says closing one unit would save an estimated $1.3 million in annual operating costs and have minimal operational impact.

Graduated reentry program

The DOC says it plans to reinvest funds from the unit closures into resources for the graduated reentry program to support incarcerated individuals’ shift into the community.

A document titled “SB 5121 & Reentry Investments,” that was provided to The Columbian, states one of the project’s objectives is to implement $24 million in reentry investments and reduce average daily prison population by 4,500 by June 30, 2023.

“We know that the science supports the concept that people are more successful when they transition into a community and are supported by resources before, during and after that transition,” DOC’s May 25 memo reads.

The most recent national study on recidivism of people released from state prisons found that two-thirds of those released were arrested for a new crime within three years; 77 percent were arrested within five years, according to Clayton Mosher, a professor in Washington State University Vancouver’s sociology department who focuses on criminology.

“So there is no question that we need to have effective reentry programs that assist those released from prison in gaining access to housing, employment, medical and mental health care,” he said in an email to The Columbian.

“If we have effective reentry programs that focus on connecting released inmates to the services mentioned above, the individual, their family, and the community will benefit — the latter because effective programs should lead to reduced crime rates,” Mosher added.

Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, the prime sponsor of SB 5121, has said the recidivism rate is less than 1 percent for those in the state’s graduated reentry program.

“I think we also need to consider the expansion of eligibility for early release and participation in graduated reentry programs as part of larger criminal justice system reforms that have emerged in the last few years, both in our state and nationally,” Mosher said. “The U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate of any Western industrialized nation, and there is a growing recognition that we have been over-reliant on incarceration.”

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