Structures built by inmates create excitement at campgrounds

Lonnie Lafay already has plans for what he wants to do when he is released from prison.

One of his first goals? To stay in one of the new cabins in a Kansas state park.

"I grew up in the outdoors, camping, fishing, hunting, hiking," said Lafay, 36, who is serving a six-year sentence at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility for manufacturing methamphetamines. "When I get out, I plan to live with my brother in Oregon, then move to Alaska.

"But before I leave Kansas, I want to go out to one of the lakes and stay in one of the state-park cabins. That would really mean a lot to me."

An unusual goal? Not when you consider that Lafay has been involved in a unique program to build those cabins for more than a year now.

Visit the minimum-security section of the Hutchinson Correctional Facility on any weekday, and you'll see Lafay and a detail of other inmates working to construct the state-park structures. Under the watchful eye of vocational instructors, they learn to do everything from installing the plumbing and electricity to building the furniture that goes in those cabins.

By the time they are done, there is an attractive, modern camping structure, ready to be transported in one piece to a state park. All that's left to do is hook up the utilities once the cabins are set in place.

To many, the program helps everyone involved. The state gets some high-quality cabins without having to pay labor. And the inmates get some valuable vocational training that can carry over to employment once they are released.

"We have had people see the cabins from the road, stop and ask, 'Are those for sale?' " said Tim Turner, one of the vocational instructors who is supervising the construction. "The quality of the workmanship really is impressive.

"I think most of the inmates involved in the project take pride in what they're doing. The majority say, 'When I get out, I am going to take my family and stay in one of these.' I think they want to say, 'I helped build this.' "

For years, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks had envisioned something of this magnitude. Some state parks already had cabins, built by other entities, but there was no large-scale effort. And because of a lack of funding, nothing appeared imminent.

That changed when the Kansas Wildscape Foundation - a nonprofit citizens group dedicated to funding Kansas outdoors projects - stepped forward.

The organization started funding the construction of cabins in 2004, with Tuttle Creek, Perry and Cross Timbers state parks as the forerunners in the project.

Inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility began building cabins in 2006. They had already been involved with building homes for low-income families, so the transition to constructing cabins for state parks was an easy one.

Since the program started, they've built six structures - two for Kanopolis State Park, two for Wilson State Park, and one each for the Mined Land Wildlife Area and Ottawa State Fishing Lake. They are now working on five more, including one that will be on display at the Kansas State Fair, then shipped to Glen Elder State Park.

Future plans are even more ambitious. They call for 125 cabins to be built in the next five years.

Today, a detail of 27 inmates works five days a week on the project. The state parks can't get the cabins fast enough.

The ones that are in use are already creating a buzz, state park managers say. The cabins, which measure 33 feet by 16 feet, include a pine log-home look with air conditioning and heat, a kitchen with a microwave, refrigerator and stovetop, a bedroom, a front room with a table and chairs, a full-bed futon and even kitchen utensils, dishes, pots and pans.

The only modern conveniences missing? A television set and a telephone.

Rental costs vary from site to site and by season. At Kanopolis, prime-season rates are $60.50 a night on Friday, Saturday and holidays, and $45.50 all other days.

"It didn't take long for people to find out that we had them," said Rick Martin, manager of Kanopolis State Park, where two cabins are now in use. "We've only been renting our cabins for about a month, but they've been booked constantly.

"We even had one guy who came in and reserved one of the cabins for almost a month during the hunting season."

That's what Wildlife and Parks had in mind when it established the program. It set out to fill a void in its state-park campgrounds.

"For years, people have asked us to build some type of lodging - either cabins or resorts - at our state parks," said Mike Hayden, secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Parks. "Some of our state parks don't have a lot in the way of lodging nearby. If people couldn't afford an RV and didn't want to sleep on the ground, they were out of luck.

"But this cabin program is changing things. We're getting a lot of positive feedback. ... We envision a day when most of our state parks have these cabins."

That's fine with Lafay. He has 17 more months to go before he is released, and he hopes to spend that time building cabins.

"I volunteered for this because I wanted to work on something I could carry over to a job," he said. "I've learned a lot. I've learned to frame a small house, which is what I want to do when I get out."

Raymond Mason of Wichita, who is serving time for burglary, is another inmate who says he has found a purpose through the program.

"I didn't want to do this at first," said Mason, who has been in prison since 2005 and hopes to get out in February 2009. "I fought it. ...

"But I've changed. Now this is what I want to do.

"I got into crime because I was bored with what I was doing. But I don't see that happening now. I want to get into finish carpentry, just like I've been doing here, and there's something new every day when you're doing that."