The union representing Larch prison workers filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections in Clark County Superior Court earlier this month over the imminent closure of Larch Corrections Center next month.
On Sept. 13, Teamsters Local 117, the union that represents 6,000 state correctional employees, filed the lawsuit, which requests an injunction against the DOC’s planned closure of the facility located in east Clark County. The lawsuit names the department and its secretary, Cheryl Strange, and alleges the department, under her supervision, committed a number of violations ahead of the decision to close the facility.
On June 26, the department announced the planned closure of Larch. Since then, numerous local governments, alongside state lawmakers and fire districts, have come out in opposition to the decision.
The union alleges the DOC violated the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the DOC when the closure was announced. The suit also alleges the DOC used unfair labor practices in its approach to offering alternative positions for Larch workers.
If granted, the injunction would halt the closure until the contractual violations are addressed, the release stated. It would also keep the DOC from moving fire crew operations from the facility.
“The DOC has betrayed the trust of the entire community,” Teamsters Local 117 Secretary-Treasurer John Scearcy said in the 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.”
Scearcy said the closure will disrupt prisoners’ progress on working toward re-entry and endanger residents who benefit from the state Department of Natural Resources-trained firefighting crews at the facility.
The firefighting capabilities of Larch have been at the forefront of arguments against its closure. Nearly every resolution and letter from local officials sent in opposition of the closure mention the usefulness of the unit, including local fire districts themselves.
That firefighting potential was also championed by state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. The DNR head wrote a letter to Strange in July, urging the DOC head to keep Larch open “until the state can, in partnership with stakeholders, address concerns about the impacts this closure would have.”
Franz wrote that a tenth of firefighters battling the Tunnel Five Fire in the Columbia River Gorge were Larch firefighters. She noted that the DOC’s decision to house those crews in Longview would put them an hour away from the Cascade Mountain foothills and thus make them less effective.
Outside of wildfire support, the union noted Larch had educational programs worth preservation. The facility helped hundreds of inmates earn GEDs since 2016, with current graduation rates at 85%, the release stated.
Former Larch correctional counselor Lauren Zavrel said closing the facility would be “shutting down one of the most innovative and successful prison education programs in the country,” the release stated.
As of press deadline, the lawsuit did not have a hearing or motion date sent.
Woodland approves closure opposition resolution
Woodland is the latest city to approve a resolution against the closure of Larch.
During its Sept. 19 meeting, the Woodland City Council approved 6-0 the resolution. Similar to other resolutions from nearby cities, it cites Larch’s programs to reduce recidivism, wildfire prevention and lands maintenance. It mentioned both the nearly 239,000-acre Yacolt Burn in 1902 and last year’s 1,900-acre Nakia Creek Fire, which happened near Larch.
With its approval, the City Council joins those in Ridgefield, La Center and Battle Ground in making resolutions against Larch’s closure. The Clark County Council also approved its own resolution urging for the facility to remain open.