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Union sues Washington DOC to block Larch Corrections Center closure

The minimum-security prison in Yacolt is slated to be closed Oct. 1, but the plan has drawn significant public pushback.
Credit: KGW

TUKWILA, Wash. — The union representing Washington State corrections workers announced Monday that it is seeking a court injunction to block the planned Oct. 1 closure of the Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt. The Washington State Department of Corrections announced the closure in June, citing a decline in the state's overall prison population, and said it would offer jobs at other facility's to Larch's 115 staff members.

In a complaint filed this week in Clark County Superior Court, Teamsters Local 117 alleges that the state Department of Corrections failed to bargain with the union over the closure of the minimum-security prison, and asks for a court order to put the closure plan on hold until the department and the union hold arbitration meetings to resolve the contractual disputes.

The lawsuit also argues that the closure violates an emergency order from Gov. Jay Inslee directing all state agencies to do everything possible to help with wildfire response efforts, because inmates from Larch often serve on wildfire response crews. As part of the injunction, the union is asking for the Department of Corrections to be blocked from relocating fire crew operations away from the Larch facility.

"The DOC has betrayed the trust of the entire community,” Teamsters Local 117 Secretary-Treasurer John Scearcy said in a statement. "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 towards 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."

The initial closure announcement drew swift backlash, with many community members and state officials joining the facility's employees in speaking out against the plan. More than 100 people gathered at a community meeting in early July to discuss the importance of the prison, and several people told KGW they felt blindsided by the decision.

A news release from the Teamsters on Monday included a July 21 letter from Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz to Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange, urging Strange to pause the closure plan because Larch is "critical to the safety of southwestern Washington." 

Franz wrote that 10% of the firefighters who responded to the Tunnel 5 fire were from Larch. She referenced a plan to move inmates to the Longview Reentry Center, but wrote that doing so would still put them "a full hour further away from the Cascade foothills where Larch crews have been most deployed and where they are most desperately needed" to fight increasingly frequent and widespread seasonal wildfires.

The news release included a similar letter to Strange from U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez, whose district includes Yacolt, asking for a formal explanation of the decision-making process that led to the Larch closure plan.

The union's lawsuit focuses more on the prison staff, alleging in the complaint that the offer to relocate Larch staff to other facilities was improper because it ignored the seniority structure and layoff provisions spelled out in the workers' collective bargaining agreement, and because the offers were made "selectively and informally," and directly to the workers rather than first bargaining with the union.

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