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Washington closes Larch prison as staff push back over jobs, wildfire risk

A small group of Larch staff hold a yellow sign on the sign of the road as a white bus drives away from the prison
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Larch staff have pushed back against the closure of the minimum security since plans were announced this summer, including filing a lawsuit that they hoped would pause the closure. A judge ruled in favor of the department just before staff's final day at the prison.

The final Friday of September was an emotional day at Larch Corrections Center.

The minimum-security prison camp is nestled in a ravine between mountainous, forested terrain, and on this morning, the surrounding hilltops were covered with mist and low-hanging clouds.

About 60 inmates loaded into large white buses with blacked-out windows. After the buses drove away, the only people still at the facility were staff.

"I cry every day," said Shelley Edwards, the prison's nurse, as she wiped tears of grief from her eyes. "I know that they're not going to get better medical care at other facilities."

The Washington Department of Corrections announced in June its plans to close the prison. That came as a surprise to state lawmakers, other elected officials, and Larch staff.

It's the first time the state has moved to close an entire prison in more than a decade.

The corrections department says the decision to close Larch is multifaceted. To start, the number of incarcerated people in Washington's prisons has gone down substantially in recent years. The overall population was around 16,955 pre-pandemic and dropped to around 12,816 last year.

The department thinks the prison population won't spike any time soon following recent reforms and changes passed by the Legislature – including scaled-back penalties for drug possession. According to data from the department, a larger share of the people who are behind bars are there for serious violent offenses, like murder, assault, and sex crimes.

So, Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange told state lawmakers at a hearing last month that the department will use resources from closing minimum-security Larch, on higher security facilities.

"We needed bed space for medium and close custody, we did not need as many minimum-custody beds," Strange said.

It's all connected to the department's strategy to move inmates into units with the right combination of security and resources, as there are fewer people in the system.

The exit from Larch Corrections Center is seen with a large white bus about to depart. The Larch logo is seen on the right, framed by red bricks.
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
The Washington Department of Corrections relocated the remaining Larch inmates Sept. 29, 2023, about a week before staff's final day working at the minimum-security facility.

As for which camp to close, officials say choosing Larch was "obvious," after comparing its maintenance costs, location, and resources to other facilities.

The prison doesn't appear to be in disrepair, at least from the outside. But officials say it needs millions of dollars worth of repairs, including to its wastewater treatment system. It's also further away from the rest of the department's remaining 11 facilities, and officials say it's easier to efficiently share resources when facilities are closer together.

Still, Larch staff aren't buying it. Several say the process has felt unfairly targeted, rushed, and one-sided – and that DOC's handling of the closure has made it impossible for them to accept.

Sid Clark has worked at Larch for more than two decades. Clark said there needs to be some accountability for the department. He says community members never got the chance to make the case for keeping Larch open, and lawmakers should have been involved.

"We have not been heard," he said. "If our legislators decide we still need to close, then so be it. But at least give us that opportunity."

Clark and others say they've been offered replacement jobs with lower pay, or that don't seem secure into the future, and that are located hours away. Clark says he's especially frustrated by the timing of the closure, noting that it's coming just after the new school year started and right before the big end-of-year holiday season.

But the consternation surrounding Larch's closure isn't just about staff losing their jobs. Clark and several others who want Larch to stay open say they're also worried about the closure's impact on inmates and Southwest Washington more broadly. Larch crews have worked with the Department of Natural Resources to help fight wildfires and manage the surrounding forest.

"I believe that this decision is going to make peoples' lives harder," said Washington's commissioner of public lands, Hilary Franz.

She says closing Larch takes away opportunities – some men have gone on to work for local fire districts after their release.

"At the end of the day we're talking about the lives of people who are learning valuable skills and they're investing back in their community," Franz said.

Franz wrote a letter to Strange in July, asking Corrections to at least pause the decision, but Franz says she hasn't heard back and the department hasn't changed course. Franz says the Department of Natural Resources has yet to figure out how to fill gaps created by those crews' removal.

A sign that says "Remember! Only you can prevent forest fires" stands in front of bushes, with the roof of Larch Corrections Center seen in the background surrounded by trees and clouds.
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Larch Corrections Center is in the Yacolt Burn State Forest. Dozens of inmates who were located there worked on crews to help manage the forest and fight wildfires with the Department of Natural Resources.

The local union, Teamsters 117, also took steps to pause the closure, filing a lawsuit against Corrections. The suit requested a preliminary injunction against staff layoffs, asking the judge to essentially pause the closure and force the department to return the prison to the "status quo" while it negotiates with the union.

The lawsuit alleged Corrections committed collective bargaining agreements violations, as well as violations of Gov. Jay Inslee's wildfire emergency proclamation by relocating Larch crews.

The judge issued an order late Sunday denying the Teamster's request, saying the union's legal arguments don't meet the threshold for a court-ordered pause.

Staff layoffs at the prison are scheduled to take effect next week. Corrections says a small team of 10 people will do some repairs and keep eyes on the prison as part of its "warm-closure" – keeping it ready just in case it needs to reopen.

Meanwhile, several staff aren't sure what's next for them. Some have accepted new jobs further away and plan to make the long commute to work. Others are still looking.

Nurse Shelley Edwards says she can't move or commute to the next nearest prison – it's more than 100 miles away.

"I can't drive two hours every day one way, for an eight- or 10-hour shift and drive two hours back – I would never get to see my grandkids," Edwards said, noting she still hasn't found a replacement job nearby. "How am I supposed to take care of my mom?"

But even if Larch does ever need to reopen, Edwards says she'd think twice before coming back.

UPDATE - 10/10 - 11:30 a.m.: This post has been edited to reflect new information about staff layoffs at the prison, per a court order.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.