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Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Nov. 28, 2023

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Donnelly: Time running out for politicians to save Larch


History is repeating itself for the Larch Correctional Facility near Yacolt. For the second time since the uniquely vibrant prison opened in 1956, the Department of Corrections has made a peremptory decision, announced on June 26, to close Larch. And for the second time, extraordinary communitywide efforts are underway to save it.

As the date nears for inmates to be scattered to other state facilities, Larch may be saved by a bipartisan effort of the region’s legislators.

But first, some history. Larch Camp began as a center for inmates organized by the Department of Natural Resources to reforest the 1902 Yacolt Burn that destroyed forests and killed 38 people.

Getting at the heart of Larch’s value then, as now, one supervisor from the 1980s stated “(the inmates) had to apply to come here. They had to be two years from release. … Once they got here, they didn’t want to leave.” Inmates likely experienced renewed life as productive members of society, creating a new forest. Just as now, Larch firefighters found inspiration as the heroes they became, saving homes, communities and forests from fires. Hope plus training led to restored lives.

Over the years, Larch crews have added incalculable value to our region, planting trees, restoring stream banks, monitoring water quality, and thinning forests. They assist the Humane Society by training dogs for adoption. Clark College educators provide services there and Larch graduates more GED-degreed inmates than all other similar facilities in the state combined.

Larch narrowly escaped closure in 2011 before the DOC concluded that the move would not save enough money to meet budget-cutting targets.

At the time, Larch Corrections Counselor Sidney Clark expressed gratitude “to the community, the families, the friends, the representatives on both sides of the aisle for … making it clear how critical it was that we remain open.”

Fast forward to 2023, Clark is still at Larch. He is prominent in the Keep Larch Open outreach movement informing the public about educational, vocational, firefighting and other achievements at Larch. On social media, bulletins brim with justifiable pride for “doing things that no other facility is doing,” gaining it “national attention.” They convince us that Larch should be a “model for the rest of the country.”

Bureaucrats at the Department of Corrections, focused on dollars, appear blind to the immeasurable value of Larch’s people. Staff and inmates combine to create unique success. Such value could soon be scattered to the winds.

For months, the Keep Larch Open campaigners have been tireless at town halls, community gatherings and on social media. Now it’s up to the region’s elected officials.

Challenges can be overcome. If money is the problem, Larch is worth scouring the budget. If more inmates are needed, find the inmates. Inmates needing to have their lives turned around are not in short supply.

Politicians are coming to the rescue. On July 25, the Clark County Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting Larch, citing “grave concerns for public safety as well as opportunities for restorative justice.” Councilor Gary Medvigy observed that Larch should be expanded, not closed.

And now, an effort by the region’s legislators may prove persuasive. Coordinated by Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver; Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver; and Rep. Stephanie McClintock, R-Battle Ground, a letter signed by Democrats and Republicans and addressed to Gov. Jay Inslee and DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange supports Larch as essential to Southwest Washington.

Time is running out to get the attention of the administration.

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