Opposition deepens to Larch Mountain closure

Opposition deepens to Larch Mountain closure

YACOLT, Wash. – No more inmates are coming to the Larch Corrections Center minimum-security prison near Yacolt, and the first wave of employees are expected to officially transfer to other sites March 1.

Though Washington governor Chris Gregoire said federal stimulus money has "created or saved" thousands of state jobs, she said the state still needs to save money by closing down several prisons. It's a move estimated to save at least $12.5 million. 

Clark County’s Larch Corrections Center is on her list of prisons to close. There are about 100 people who work at the prison, some of whom have already moved out of the area. Four hundred prisoners will need to be relocated.

However, local prison supporters are fighting to keep the site open. A group of Washington legislators and Clark County officials want Gregoire to reconsider the plan for the Larch Correction Center in Yacolt. Some said they'll even take a partial closure instead of a full-closure plan.

Those prison supporters contend that this state budget decision doesn't take into consideration other costs. For example, they said it will cost a quarter million dollars a year just to guard what would be an empty prison. The correction center is on 40 acres in rural Clark County, with buildings housing classrooms, offices, a religious center, medical offices and a library.

Low recidivism reported
Prisoners at Larch also receive valuable training, and save local resources with work like fighting fires. (Inmates are paid 50 cents an hour for a maximum of $55 a month.)

“You have an extremely low recidivism rate, because they go right into a job and people really need them,” said Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association. “They need good firefighters and these guys get certified through the Larch process.”

Larch Corrections Center opened in 1956 and was originally named Larch Mountain Honor Camp. At that time, it housed about 90 offenders who were primarily assigned to Department of Natural Resources, according to its Web site.

According to a Department of Natural Resources estimate, hiring outside-contract crews would have cost them close to $200,000 more for fire suppression work in 2009 alone.

Labor of love
For Cushman, keeping Larch Mountain open also is a labor of love. It was inmate labor, working with the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group to restore the bank of Mason Creek, that kept his home from sliding into the water.

"They are a tremendous asset," Cushman said. "When you have guys trained like that, and eager to do work that others might not want to do ... it's really an advantage."

Not all the work the inmates do is out in the wilderness. Crews also provide litter clean-up, graffiti cover up, minor assembly of new construction projects and grounds keeping for such tourist-draws as Royal Ridges and Pomeroy Farms.

Meanwhile, organizations such as the Washington State School for the Blind must now cancel scheduled inmate maintenance projects. It's work that would have saved the school thousands of dollars.

"That [dollar amount] might be summer school for a couple of the kids, or field trips – things that the kids may not get in their home district," said Rob Tracey of the school.

Supporters think there is still time to change legislators' minds, reminding them just how much impact the prison has on the local economy. If the center does close, many of the Larch inmates will be moved to Mcneil Island near Tacoma.