Secretary-Treasurer John Scearcy has published an opinion piece in the Columbian, a news outlet based in Vancouver, WA. The piece speaks out against the proposed closure of the Larch Corrections Center and how our members at the facility excel at preparing incarcerated individuals for life after prison. The piece is published in its entirety below.

Larch Corrections Center a Shining Success

By John Scearcy (published in the Columbian on July 22)

Life after prison is hard. Formerly incarcerated individuals struggle to access affordable housing, healthcare, and viable job opportunities. Despite efforts to curb recidivism, 2 out of 3 people are rearrested after their release and more than 50 percent are locked up again, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

With such uncertain odds, you’d think the Washington State Department of Corrections would showcase facilities that excel at teaching job readiness skills and strengthening family support networks to give people nearing their release a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. The recent announcement to close the Larch Corrections Center, a work-release camp nationally recognized for its outstanding training programs, shows the DOC cares more about operational efficiencies and less about keeping people from returning to prison.

In a correctional system often wrought with failure, Larch is a shining success. Through an innovative partnership with Clark College, the facility has helped hundreds of incarcerated individuals earn their GEDs. Graduation rates for men in the program have soared from 15 percent in 2016 to 85 percent today.

Education is one of the cornerstones to reducing recidivism. A 2018 study, funded by the Department of Justice, found that people who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison after their release.

Another proven approach to reducing recidivism is meaningful vocational training. While all DOC facilities statewide strive to prepare incarcerated people for gainful employment after they reenter our communities, Larch is in a class of its own.

For over 50 years, the camp has collaborated with the State’s Department of Natural Resources to train and deploy crews that fight devastating wildfires in southwest Washington. In the last three years alone, DNR crews of Larch staff and incarcerated individuals have helped battle and suppress more than 70 fires in the region.

Through their work on fire crews, the people housed at Larch gain valuable teamwork, leadership, and community service skills that prepare them for good, sustainable jobs after they are released. Together with corrections staff, they not only fight fires, but they build trails, restore forests, plant trees, save homes, and save lives. 

The area surrounding Larch has been dubbed “ground zero for catastrophic wildfires,” according to Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. The growing climate crisis will only exacerbate this problem. Relocating the Larch fire crews will represent an essential lost resource that has served and protected the local community for decades.

Closing Larch would also mean the loss of good, union jobs that support correctional employees and their families in this economically distressed part of the State. Many families would be forced to sell their homes, uproot, and sever ties with local businesses, schools, civic organizations, and their neighbors.

The families of incarcerated individuals would be harmed by the closure as well and have to travel long distances to visit their loved ones who are assigned to other prisons. Regular contact between incarcerated people and their families has been linked to a number of positive outcomes including improved mental health, lower recidivism rates, and greater participation in educational programing.

The DOC says it wants to close Larch because the prison population in our State has decreased. Fewer people locked up is something we can all celebrate. But our institutions and elected leaders need to focus on keeping people out of prison now and in the future. To achieve that goal, they must allow model facilities like Larch to remain operational. Larch gives people recently released from prison a real chance for success. Our communities are safer for it.

John Scearcy is Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117. Teamsters 117 represents 17,000 working people across Washington State, including over 6,000 correctional employees.