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Layoffs move forward at Wash. corrections center

The union said 115 staff members would be affected by the closure of Larch and that the majority accepted positions at other DOC facilities or state agencies


Department of Corrections Washington State

By Jessica Prokop
The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

YACOLT, Wash. — The Washington Court of Appeals denied a labor union’s request for an emergency injunction Wednesday that would have postponed layoffs at Larch Corrections Center. Layoffs moved forward by day’s end, according to a spokesperson with the Washington Department of Corrections.

The minimum-security prison, located southeast of Battle Ground in the Yacolt Burn State Forest, was “warm-closed” last week, following a brief legal battle. All of the incarcerated people have been transferred to other facilities, including trained crews used in fighting wildfires across the state.

Teamsters Local 117 had asked the appeals court to review a Clark County Superior Court judge’s denial of a preliminary injunction that would have delayed Larch’s closure until arbitration could be completed. The union moved for an emergency stay while its motion for discretionary review was pending.

The union, which represents 6,000 state corrections employees, filed a complaint Sept. 13 alleging Corrections, under Secretary Cheryl Strange, had committed several violations leading to Larch’s closure.

“The court’s decision does not change the fact that the DOC acted inexcusably without input from labor, community and other affected stakeholders to close a model facility,” Sarena Davis, the union’s director of corrections and law enforcement, said in a statement Wednesday.

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.

Corrections said staff will either report to their new assignments or be separated from employment.

The agency previously said 115 staff members would be affected by the closure and that the majority accepted positions at other DOC facilities or state agencies. As part of the warm-closure process, 10 people will continue to work at Larch to ensure the facility is maintained and could be reopened if demand increases.

Leadership with the Washington Department of Social and Health Services toured Larch earlier this month, one of several sites across the state over the last few months, an agency spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

“We continue to explore and evaluate vacant properties in both the private and public sector as opportunities to add behavioral health bed capacity throughout the state for the department to serve more patients,” said Tyler Hemstreet, a spokesman for DSHS.

No decisions have been made, however, Hemstreet said.

Corrections said the decision to warm-close Larch was not connected to DSHS’ potential use of the facility, saying it was “made strictly to address DOC’s needs.”

“If another agency is able to use the facility in the future though and create jobs for the local community, that would be ideal,” Chris Wright, a spokesman for Corrections, said in an email Tuesday.

Hemstreet said there are some situations in which DSHS repurposes DOC buildings. He pointed to the Maple Lane Community Behavioral Health Campus in Thurston County. DSHS is using some of the buildings on the Department of Corrections Maple Lane School Campus for competency restoration patients, and it also built a new facility for civilly committed patients.

“We have to move delicately because we want to provide a different environment than a corrections-type environment for these patients,” Hemstreet said in regard to repurposing DOC facilities. “We certainly don’t want to be moving (people) decompensating in jail ... to a similar environment. We want a therapeutic environment.”


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