Judge gives OK for state to move ahead with prison closure

A labor union tried to stall the shuttering of Washington’s Larch Corrections Center but lost in court on Monday.

By: - October 9, 2023 3:24 pm

Larch Corrections Center, seen here, is slated to close in fall of 2023. The minimum security facility is located in Yacolt. (Washington State Department of Corrections)

Larch Corrections Center in southwest Washington will close Tuesday, despite a last ditch effort by the union representing correctional employees to keep the minimum security state prison open until a round of labor negotiations wraps up.

Teamsters Local 117 sued the Department of Corrections last month over what they say were multiple violations of fair labor practices ahead of the department’s decision to shutter Larch. They asked a judge to pause the closure until the two sides could finish an arbitration process to address those issues. 

But Clark County Superior Court Judge Derek Vanderwood ruled Monday against the union.

“DOC’s decision to close Larch falls within its sound discretion and authority,” Vanderwood wrote in his order, adding that the department engaged in “an appropriate analysis that considered a variety of factors prior to making its decision.” 

The Department of Corrections announced in June that it would close the Yacolt minimum security prison in October, citing a shrinking incarcerated population, the facility’s remote location and the high cost of needed upgrades. 

As of Thursday, Corrections spokesman Chris Wright said all of the prisoners at Larch had been transferred to other facilities. 

The facility employed 115 people. Prior to the closure, Corrections said it would offer employees positions at other facilities run by the department or work with other agencies, such as the Washington State Patrol, to find them jobs nearby.

Wright said most Larch staff had accepted positions at other sites or agencies. Ten will continue to work at the facility, as it will remain “warm closed,” meaning it could be open again in the future as needed. The rest of the staff will be laid off starting Tuesday.

Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange said the department was pleased the court recognized its authority to close Larch.

“We have an abundance of minimum-security beds and need to refocus our resources to provide those in our care and custody with the mental health, educational, programming and health care access best suited to meet their needs,” Strange said in a statement.

Sarena Davis, Teamsters Local 117’s director of corrections and law enforcement, said she was disappointed with the court’s ruling. 

“Closing Larch will force workers to cut ties with their community, separate incarcerated individuals from their families and deprive them of valuable programming to aid in the reentry process,” Davis said in a statement. 

The case

In the lawsuit, the union alleged Corrections refused to bargain on its closure plan and improperly offered jobs to members in exchange for them ceasing union activities. 

Ben Berger, attorney for the union, argued in court Friday that collective bargaining on the effects of the closure was ongoing, but layoffs were still scheduled to begin this week. 

He said the union should at least have the opportunity to finish bargaining over the closure’s effects before staff is laid off. 

“The Department of Corrections is moving at breakneck speed to complete the unlawful closure,” Berger said. 

The department, on the other hand, argued it has been bargaining with the union in a timely manner and, although they have not yet reached an agreement, Corrections remains “committed” to the ongoing process, Assistant Attorney General Kelly Oshiro said Friday.

Oshiro argued in court the department has made an effort to negotiate over the closure, but said the union doesn’t hold any sway over the actual decision to shut down Larch.

“At the end of the day, the decision to close is a management right within the department’s authority,” she said.

Vanderwood agreed with Corrections, writing in his decision that the union failed to demonstrate that the agency took part in unfair labor practices and breached the workers’ contract. 

Negative consequences from the closure for individual workers are mostly monetary and can be solved in arbitration, the judge added. 

In their lawsuit, the union also claimed Corrections violated an emergency proclamation from the governor that aimed to ensure the state does “everything reasonably possible” to help communities respond to and recover from wildfires. 

The closure moved nearly 80 incarcerated individuals who worked on crews assisting the state with wildland firefighting. The Teamsters argued that relocating the firefighters by October undermines Inslee’s proclamation and puts Washington residents at risk. 

But Oshiro said how a department follows an emergency order from another agency is not up to the union. 

“Wildfire advocacy is not germane to this decision,” she said.

Vanderwood again agreed, writing in his order that the union did not have standing to claim that Corrections violated the emergency order.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.