BATTLE GROUND — Larch Corrections Center staff highlighted the facility’s education and work programs — most notably, its partnership with the Department of Natural Resources to fight wildfires — during a town hall Thursday evening, organized to keep the camp open.
It was standing-room only inside the Battle Ground Community Library’s meeting room, with the more than 100 people in attendance spilling into the hall and outside onto the sidewalk. Elected officials in attendance included state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz; state Reps. Stephanie McClintock, R-Vancouver, and Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, and Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver.
The Washington Department of Corrections announced June 26 it plans to close Larch in October, citing declining incarceration trends. Staff said they were notified by email and human resources; an email was sent to all 8,500 DOC employees, according to Corrections.
The minimum-security prison near Yacolt, which opened in 1956, can 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.
“The decision to close Larch is in no way a reflection of the facility’s leadership or its employees. They have been invaluable DOC employees,” the agency said in an email to The Columbian, in response to Thursday’s town hall.
An agency spokesman previously told The Columbian that 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 DNR with fire season.
Corrections said anyone who wants to work at another DOC facility will be offered opportunities for employment and moving expenses.
Challenging fire seasons
Franz, who oversees DNR, said the agency has been working with Corrections at Larch since the 1950s. She told the crowd she had just come from the Tunnel Five Fire burning in the Columbia River Gorge.
“This year is going to be one of our most challenging fire seasons ever,” Franz said.
There are currently 40 people from Larch on the Tunnel Five Fire, she said, about 10 percent of the firefighters. In the next few weeks, 80 incarcerated individuals will be fire trained and ready to go, she said.
“They are saving lives. They are more necessary than ever before, as we are seeing more and more fires on our landscape,” Franz said. “But they are also the ones who are restoring the health of your forests. They are building the trails. They are helping in this community. … They are learning skills. They are learning discipline. They are learning leadership. They are learning teamwork, all the kinds of critical skills so that when they are released, they can go out and have amazing jobs.”
In an interview with media before the town hall, Franz said DNR can move crews around.
“But the problem is this community loses that. Not only do we lose 150 people who work here in this community, who help train these men and women, but there’s also the fact that they are right here in Southwest Washington, which is truly ground zero for catastrophic wildfires. And the closer they are, just like our equipment, just like our air resources, our engines, our dozers … to the fire, the quicker they can get on them.”
Ryan Reese, president of Local 452 branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters, reminded the crowd of the fire on the Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway in early June. Fires on unimproved lands require additional resources, he said, such as DNR and Larch inmate crews.
The time local firefighters spend at a wildland fire is time they are taken away from medical calls and house fires, he said.
“Our bread and butter isn’t the wildland scene,” he said.
Reese said if Larch closes, they don’t know where their resources will come from.
Franz told media she acknowledges there is an issue around money and funding.
“I think it’s important for (Corrections) to realize that every single minute spent trying to get to a fire is actually dollars wasted. And, even more importantly, is a potential risk of lives lost, homes lost. … I think we really need to start valuing the location of those people who are on these fires and able to get on these fires.”
‘Not just a fire camp’
Among Thursday’s speakers, community members heard from Larch’s counselors, educators and medical staff. Staff said they were speaking as concerned citizens and stressed their opinions don’t reflect their respective agencies, including DOC, Clark College and the State Board for Community & Technical Colleges.
Corrections specialist Shawn Piliponis spoke of the importance of Larch’s education and work programs, as well as its medical, dental and mental health services.
“They actually enjoy doing this work. They are picking up a skill through our education programs. … They’ve actually found new and innovative ways to make sure they are getting that connection with these community stakeholders to develop those credits that they need to earn an actual high school diploma.”
Corrections educator Lauren Zavrel told the crowd, “Larch is not just a fire camp. It’s not just a little prison over the hill, and closing it is not just a state issue or a county issue.”
Zavrel said Corrections leadership is looking at numbers that show the money spent on Larch doesn’t have an ideal return on investment when compared with other camps tied to bigger facilities. But that’s not the whole picture, she said.
In 2016, before Larch introduced some of its education programs, such as peer tutoring, its graduation rate was about 15 percent. Now, it’s about 85 percent. In that same time frame, education staff wrote about 20 infractions; now they average about one to two per year, Zavrel said.
When COVID-19 lockdowns forced the suspension of classes, graduation rates held steady, she said. Sergeants closed day rooms for peer tutoring and homework. Corrections officers also helped collect homework packets and distribute calculators.
Larch’s educational program has certified 33 tutors since 2019, Zavrel said, and four are in training.
“If we as a state really value the obvious connections between education and reductions in recidivism, Larch would be the last place we would talk about closing, and instead, it would be a household name as a national beacon for what corrections education can look like,” said Justin Allen, a corrections educator.
‘Huge step in the wrong direction’
Staff members also read letters from incarcerated individuals who object to Larch’s closure.
Matthew Tobin, 28, said he’s been incarcerated since 2014. He was first housed at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, he said, and spent most of the day locked in a cell.
“When I look back on it now, there is nothing there to rehabilitate someone or help them to prepare for a life after prison. At that time, I had only heard stories about DNR and inmate wildland firefighting crews. It became one of my biggest goals while in prison,” he said.
Tobin said getting the opportunity to work for DNR has been the most beneficial experience he’s had while in prison.
“I have learned a lot about leadership and being part of a team on top of so many other things. From fighting wildfires to planting trees and even picking up trash piles that have been dumped in recreation areas, all of these things are a valuable service to all the people of Washington,” Tobin wrote.
Tobin said working for DNR also provides incarcerated individuals with the chance to earn money to start their lives after prison.
“DOC says they want to provide programs to help inmates better themselves, but closing Larch Mountain is a huge step in the wrong direction,” he wrote. “Please don’t take this amazing opportunity that working DNR provides me and so many others away from us, and keep Larch Mountain open.”
A call to action
As the town hall concluded, Vancouver’s Sherri Hinzmann, 61, asked about next steps.
“I’d like to know when we’re going to go to Olympia to have a talk with this DOC secretary?” she asked. “That’s what we did last time.” (Larch previously faced closure in 2011, but the decision was later reversed.)
In addition to taking their fight to Olympia, corrections counselor Sid Clark said staff are calling on elected officials to hold town halls about the proposed closure for their constituents.
“Right now, what we need to do is stop the bleeding, step back and assess what the hell are we doing. It’s going to take all of us … to make sure we get it done,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, the Department of Corrections does not determine if we close. If we sit silent and let it happen, then it will happen.”
A change.org petition created June 29 to keep Larch open has garnered more than 1,300 signatures. For more information about what staff are doing to keep Larch open, visit the Facebook page Keep Larch Corrections Center Open.