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News / Clark County News

Union that represents Washington corrections officers seeks to block Larch closure

Prison near Yacolt due to close next month

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor
Published: September 14, 2023, 11:44am

The union that represents Washington corrections officers filed a complaint Wednesday seeking a court injunction to stop the impending closure of Larch Corrections Center.

The complaint filed in Clark County Superior Court alleges the Washington Department of Corrections, under Secretary Cheryl Strange, has committed several violations leading up to the facility’s planned Oct. 1 closure.

DOC’s communications team said Thursday the department does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation. It confirmed Larch’s closure, which is part of the department’s Best Bed Project, is still slated for October.

Teamsters Local 117, which represents 6,000 state corrections employees, argues the department has refused to bargain collectively over the closure, violated workers’ seniority rights and improperly offered employment to bargaining unit members in exchange for ceasing union activities.

The complaint also alleges the department violated Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation concerning statewide wildland firefighting.

In partnership with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the minimum-security prison near Yacolt has trained fire crews used in fighting wildfires across the state for more than six decades.

“The DOC has betrayed the trust of the entire community,” John Searcy, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, said in a Thursday news release. “Instead of engaging impacted stakeholders, the department blindsided the public and continues to recklessly move ahead with a plan that will harm workers, incarcerated individuals and their families.

“Closing Larch will disrupt the lives and progress of incarcerated individuals working toward reentry while endangering people across Southwestern Washington who rely on the facility’s fire crews that have served and protected families in the region for 50 years,” he said.

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The union is asking the court to stop the closure until the alleged violations have been addressed in arbitration. The injunction would also prevent Corrections from dismantling or moving fire crews from the facility.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, sent a letter to Strange expressing concerns over Larch’s closure. She wrote that in recent months her office had received numerous complaints from Larch staff, community leaders and concerned citizens. She requested a formal explanation of the decision process for the closure.

Larch staff have adamantly opposed the facility’s closure and held a town hall in July to draw support, which included Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. Local elected officials and a bipartisan group of lawmakers representing Clark County have also urged Inslee and Corrections to keep Larch open.

DOC announced in June it planned to close the facility in the fall, citing declining incarceration and a need for higher security level beds.

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.

DOC’s Best Bed Project website states Larch was chosen for closure, in part, because it would need an estimated $31 million in repairs over the next decade, and of the four free-standing minimum-security facilities, it would require the most capital investments. The department said it is also the only facility of its type that’s not near a major facility, hindering timely access to health care services.

The department also cited Larch’s remote location as a factor in its decision.

As far as wildland firefighting, Corrections said it will either increase the number of firefighters at its other minimum-security facilities or move the currently 70 Larch firefighters to a reentry center in Longview.

In its complaint, the union argues the employees stationed at the Longview facility are represented by a different labor group and have not previously supervised forestry crews nor been trained to do so.

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