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News / Clark County News

Larch Corrections Center layoffs postponed for a few more days; next step is the Washington appeals court

Appeals court may hear union’s request to keep prison open

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor
Published: October 11, 2023, 1:33pm

A Washington Court of Appeals commissioner Tuesday granted a labor union’s request to postpone layoffs at Larch Corrections Center until at least Oct. 16.

Teamsters Local 117 is now asking the appeals court to review a Clark County Superior Court judge’s denial of its preliminary injunction that would have delayed the closure of the minimum-security prison until arbitration could be completed.

The union, 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 to Larch’s planned closure.

“We are hopeful that the court will reconsider our motion for a temporary injunction. An injunction will allow time for contractual disputes to be resolved in arbitration,” Sarena Davis, the union’s director of corrections and law enforcement, said in a statement Wednesday. “It will also mitigate the harm that the DOC’s careless and needlessly hasty decision has wrought on the broader community.”

A Corrections spokesman confirmed Wednesday the agency is complying with the court’s temporary stay and did not lay off staff Tuesday as planned. The facility remains warm-closed, however. All of the prisoners have been transferred to other facilities.

“Some staff who were scheduled for layoff are now on administrative leave because there is no work available at LCC consistent with their prior job duties,” Chris Wright, the agency’s communications director, wrote in an email.

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 about a week.

Superior Court Judge Derek Vanderwood took up the union’s preliminary injunction Friday; he directed Corrections to postpone Larch’s closure until Tuesday while he reached a decision. On Monday, he denied the motion, stating the union had failed to demonstrate the factors needed for a preliminary injunction, and layoffs were set for Tuesday.

The union then moved for an emergency stay of the denial with the Court of Appeals while its motion for discretionary review is pending.

Commissioner Aurora R. Bearse granted the temporary stay of the layoffs Tuesday to give the court time to fully consider the motion, according to a letter shared with The Columbian.

Larch, in partnership with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, has trained crews used in fighting wildfires across the state for more than six decades. It 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.

Corrections previously said 115 Larch staff members would be affected by the closure and that the majority of 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.

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.