CLARK COUNTY, Wash. — Larch Corrections Center, a Washington State Prison, is set to close in October, according to the state's Department of Corrections. At the time, the officials explained this decision was due to a decline in the statewide prison population, and a surplus of minimum security beds.
However, since the news nearly three weeks ago, many corrections workers at the facility and community members who live nearby have spoken out against the planned closure, and are now fighting to keep it open.
A group of more than 100 people met earlier this month to discuss the importance of Larch Corrections Center, and how they can advocate for its continued operation. Speakers highlighted inmates' contributions to fighting wildfires, Larch's one-of-a-kind educational environment, and its unique, long-standing relationship with the community in Southwest Washington.
Many told KGW they found it hard to believe that the Department of Corrections (DOC) would choose to close this facility, so we reached out for some answers and clarity as to why it will close.
"First and foremost, we'd say that it has nothing to do with the facility itself, or the performance of the staff," said Chris Wright, a spokesperson for the DOC. "It's primarily because of its location. It's remotely located there in the southwest part of the state... on a mountain, literally, compared to our other facilities. And it's in need of an estimated $31 million in repairs and infrastructure improvements over the next decade or so."
As for the Larch inmates who help fight wildfires, like, the Tunnel 5 Fire in the Gorge, that service will shift to Longview.
"The plan is to make 70 beds available in Longview, and that's not a prison — that's a reentry center," said Wright. "It's actually, we think, a more beneficial location. It's a little farther away."
Meaning farther away from areas prone to wildfire. Larch was evacuated during the Nakia Creek Fire last October, a first in the DOC's history.
The DOC wrote up a lengthy FAQ about the agency's reasons to close the minimum security facility, which include a reduction in the need for lower security beds.
"Pretty much the only solution for keeping the facility open long term would be giving people more stiff sentences, say for simple drug possession, and I think in this part of the country especially it's pretty clear we we moved away from that," Wright said.
Opponents still argue closing Larch isn't the answer to a declining incarcerated population. They're working to involve elected leaders to reopen the conversation and reverse the DOC's decision.
"Closing a standalone minimum facility like Larch Corrections Center is not that positive ray of hope that a lot of people are looking at," said Shawn Piliponis. "Closing a facility like that that provides so much meaningful community support, is actually the wrong choice by the Department... it does not appear to have that positive look that they are hoping for."
"Let us continue to do the work that we're doing," said Sidney Clark. "Because we are really doing re-entry and we are really having an impact on the residents that we're responsible for, as well as this community."