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News / Clark County News

Larch Corrections Center’s employees fighting to keep facility open, plan town hall

The meeting will be Thursday in Battle Ground

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor
Published: July 4, 2023, 6:14am

Staff at Larch Corrections Center will hold a town hall Thursday evening in Battle Ground as part of their efforts to keep the facility open.

The Washington Department of Corrections announced June 26 it plans to close Larch this fall, citing declining incarceration trends. Staff were notified by email.

The minimum-security prison near Yacolt, which opened in 1956, can currently house up to 240 men. Larch’s average daily population has hovered around 230 since the beginning of the year, according to Corrections data.

Corrections said Larch is being “warm closed,” meaning it could reopen in the future if the need arises. The department previously warm closed Larch’s Elkhorn unit, halving the facility’s capacity.

A change.org petition created June 29 to keep Larch open had already garnered more than half its goal of 500 signatures in a day’s time.

“Larch is a staple to successful re-entry to the incarcerated. Staff and incarcerated alike are incredibly upset about the notification of closure. I am reaching out to you in an effort to keep LCC open,” the petition reads.

Corrections plans to close the facility in October. An agency spokesman previously told The Columbian officials chose that time frame to provide everyone with enough time to move incarcerated individuals to other facilities and help Larch’s 115 staff members find other jobs. It also allows inmate crews to assist the Department of Natural Resources with fire season.

Staff say the purpose of Thursday’s town hall is to discuss the impacts the facility’s closure will have on the community. It is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at Battle Ground Community Library, 1207 S.E. Eighth Way, Battle Ground.

DNR crews

Part of the discussion, staff say, will focus on why Larch is vital to the success of Southwest Washington’s forests.

Larch opened as a base for inmate crews deployed to reforest the 1902 Yacolt Burn. In addition to Larch, DNR works with Corrections to operate correctional camp crews out of Airway Heights, Cedar Creek and Olympic corrections centers — previously called offender honor camps.

Incarcerated individuals volunteer as crew members to assist with wildland firefighting, fire suppression and prevention, tree planting, trail maintenance, and more. They receive training and job skills in firefighting, chain saw operation, silviculture practices, sew shop, and machine and auto mechanics, according to Corrections.

According to the Facebook page Keep Larch Corrections Center Open, there are about 80 incarcerated individuals from Larch assigned to DNR crews. A document titled Larch Camp Accomplishments, DNR, states that from 2020-2022, the camp planted 989,000 trees over 3,504 acres; hand slashed 2,420 acres; was dispatched to 71 local fires; and provided 10,018 offender hours to trail and campground maintenance.

“Not only do we help keep Southwest Washington from burning, but we also keep those fighting the fires fed so they have the energy to fight these fires all over the state,” a June 30 post reads in part.

“If Larch is closed, there is no fast response to Southwest Washington. Homes and lives will be lost.”

Prior planned closure

This is not the first time Larch has faced closure.

According to Columbian archives, in December 2009, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire announced plans to close the prison in order to slash $12.5 million from DOC’s budget. Legislators subsequently proposed halving Larch’s population instead, and the Legislature passed a budget bill in April 2010 to keep its population at 240.

But in August, as the state’s fiscal condition worsened, closure of Larch was back on the table. Then-Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail later announced Larch would close by Feb. 1, 2011. However, by November, Vail reversed course and announced McNeil Island Corrections Center would close instead. Larch returned to full capacity.

Larch would be the first prison to be shuttered since McNeil Island, according to Corrections, though several units at Monroe Correctional Center closed in 2021, in addition to Larch’s Elkhorn unit.