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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Plans to close corrections center shortsighted

The Columbian
Published: July 18, 2023, 6:03am

State officials should reconsider plans for closing Larch Corrections Center in east Clark County. Given its status as the only prison in Southwest Washington and its record of providing education and vocational training, Larch should be expanded rather than shuttered.

At the least, decision-makers should tap the brakes on the process. The current timeline is needlessly hasty.

Washington Department of Corrections officials announced last month that they plan to close Larch this fall, citing declining incarceration needs. The department operates 12 prisons; approximately 70 percent of available beds throughout the system typically are occupied, and incarceration numbers are expected to decline in coming years.

At Larch — a minimum-security facility that opened in 1956 — the Elkhorn unit was closed in 2021, cutting capacity in half to 240 men. This year, the inmate population has hovered around 230.

Those are the basics of the issue. The details are more complicated, and state officials would be wise to consider criticisms of the closure plan.

Among those is that Larch is the only corrections facility in Southwest Washington, allowing many inmates to remain close to family and support systems. The next closest state prison is the Cedar Creek facility in Littlerock, southwest of Olympia and a 90-minute drive from Vancouver.

As the Prison Policy Initiative writes: “The positive effects of visitation have been well-known for decades — particularly when it comes to reducing recidivism. … Visitation is also correlated with adherence to prison rules.”

Larch has an admirable record of preventing recidivism. A partnership with Clark College has helped hundreds of incarcerated individuals earn a GED, and the facility has strong vocational training programs. For more than 50 years, Larch has worked with the Department of Natural Resources to train and deploy crews to fight wildfires.

“In the last three years alone, DNR crews of Larch staff and incarcerated individuals have helped battle and suppress more than 70 fires in the region,” John Scearcy of Teamsters 117, which represents corrections employees, wrote in an opinion piece for The Columbian.

“Through their work on fire crews, the people housed at Larch gain valuable teamwork, leadership, and community service skills that prepare them for good, sustainable jobs after they are released. Together with corrections staff, they not only fight fires, but they build trails, restore forests, plant trees, save homes, and save lives.”

On a related note, inmates should be fairly compensated for their work. As Stacy Selby wrote for Crosscut.com in 2020: “For prisoners, that pride is often diluted by lack of pay (in Washington, the average hourly wage for imprisoned firefighters is 62 cents an hour).” But that is an issue for another time. For now, the focus is on a shortsighted decision to close the only prison within 100 miles of Vancouver.

The plan is to “warm close” Larch, allowing it to reopen should the need arise. The same process was used for the Elkhorn unit, and would allow that half of the prison to reopen with minimal effort and cost. Closing another facility and restoring Larch to full capacity would benefit our community, corrections officers and — most important — inmates.

As one incarcerated person wrote in a letter that was read at a recent town hall: “DOC says they want to provide programs to help inmates better themselves, but closing Larch Mountain is a huge step in the wrong direction.”