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Feb. 25, 2024

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Clark County judge denies labor union request; Larch will close Tuesday

By , Columbian Local News Editor

Larch Corrections Center is scheduled to close Tuesday after a Clark County Superior Court judge denied a labor union’s request that would have kept the minimum-security prison open, at least temporarily.

Teamsters Local 117, which represents 6,000 state corrections employees, filed a complaint Sept. 13 alleging the Washington Department of Corrections, under Secretary Cheryl Strange, had committed several violations leading up to Larch’s planned closure.

The union sought a preliminary injunction to stop the closure until arbitration could be completed.

Corrections announced in June it would close Larch in the fall, citing declining incarceration trends and a need for higher-security-level beds. The agency originally planned to close Larch on Oct. 1 but later pushed back the date to Monday.

On Friday, Judge Derek Vanderwood took up the motion and directed Corrections to postpone the closure until Tuesday while he reached a decision. Corrections already transferred all of the prisoners to other facilities, but staff are still working.

In his order, filed Monday morning, the judge said he denied the union’s motion because it failed to demonstrate the factors needed for a preliminary injunction.

“We are disappointed in the court’s ruling not to stop the closure of Larch until contractual violations can be addressed in arbitration. But the court’s decision does not change the fact that the DOC is making a mistake with far-reaching consequences,” Sarena Davis, the union’s director of corrections and law enforcement, said in a statement Monday.

“Closing Larch will force workers to cut ties with their community, separate incarcerated individuals from their families and deprive them of valuable programming to aid in the reentry process. Because of the DOC’s reckless decision, the entire southwestern region of the state will lose fire crews that have served and protected the community for 50 years.”

Teamsters Local 117 argued the department has refused to bargain collectively over Larch’s closure, violated workers’ seniority rights and improperly offered employment to bargaining unit members in exchange for ceasing union activities. The complaint also alleged the department violated Gov. Jay Inslee’s August emergency proclamation concerning statewide wildland firefighting.

In partnership with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Larch has trained crews used in fighting wildfires across the state for more than six decades. Larch was equipped and staffed to house 240 incarcerated men, making it one of the smaller state correctional facilities. It is located southeast of Battle Ground in the Yacolt Burn State Forest.

Vanderwood determined the discretion to close Larch falls within DOC’s authority and that the union failed to prove the department had breached the collective bargaining agreement. He also wrote the union failed to prove it would likely succeed on its merits of the unfair labor practice claims.

Further, he found the union didn’t have standing to bring a claim that Corrections violated Inslee’s emergency proclamation by eliminating Larch’s forestry crews, and even if it did, the union hadn’t proved the violation.

“This is the result of investments made by the governor and Legislature in sentencing alternatives and more humane treatment of those convicted of drug crimes,” Strange said in a news release Monday. “We have an abundance of minimum-security beds and need to refocus our resources to provide those in our care and custody with the mental health, educational, programming and health care access best suited to meet their needs. We are pleased the court recognized our authority to close Larch.”

According to Corrections, the Department of Natural Resources will use the wildfire off-season to continue reviewing a proposal to move inmate fire crews to the Longview Reentry Center. If it declines the proposal, the fire crews will be deployed from Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Thurston County and Olympic Corrections Center near Forks to help fight fires in Southwest Washington.

Corrections previously said 115 staff members would be affected by the closure. On Monday, Corrections said the majority of Larch employees accepted positions at other DOC facilities or state agencies. Ten will continue to work at Larch to ensure the facility is maintained and could be reopened if demand increases.

Three Larch staffers told The Columbian on Friday they had received their new assignments earlier this month.

Larch staff adamantly opposed the closure and held a town hall in July to draw support, which included Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. Local elected officials and fire agencies and a bipartisan group of lawmakers representing Clark County also urged Inslee and Corrections to keep Larch open. Last month, U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, sent a letter to Strange expressing concerns over the closure and noting that she had received numerous complaints.

Larch will be the first prison to be shuttered since the state closed McNeil Island Corrections Center in 2011, according to Corrections. Several units at Monroe Correctional Center closed in 2021, and the department previously closed Larch’s Elkhorn unit, halving the facility’s capacity.