Cabins at Kansas’ state parks and lakes are so popular that many visitors can’t get a reservation.

Rentals of the 70 available cabins increased 155% last year, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, the Hutchinson News.

Most of the visitors enjoying the modern cabins might be surprised to learn they were built by inmates at three state correctional facilities as part of a program to teach inmates job skills.

But the parks department is lucky if it can get a dozen cabins a year from the correctional facilities, and budget cuts have also hurt the program, Mark Stock, the department’s cabin coordinator.

The parks department doesn’t spend any taxpayer money on the cabin program and state budget cuts have affected the prison education programs. Because the parks department wants to have 150 cabins at state parks and reservoirs in the next five years, it is looking for other financing.

Officials solicited bids from home contractors for building them, he said, but he stressed that the inmate program will not be stopped anytime soon.

“We will continue to have corrections build cabins for us,” he said. “But we would like to get more cabins out there.”

The cabins include air conditioning and heating and a kitchen with a microwave, stove and refrigerator. They sleep five to six. Rental rates vary at each lake.

“It’s a chance to get away and enjoy nature without roughing it too much,” said Linda Kootz, who works at Kanopolis State Park, where there are two deluxe cabins.

Only four days are still available in May, with only six days open in July.

“That’s how popular they are,” Kootz said. “(The inmates) do amazing work, and people just love them.”

Doug Haskins, sales manager for Liberty Homes of Yoder, said he met with Stock and wildlife and parks Secretary Mike Hayden last Monday to discuss a bid and look at a future cabin site at Sand Hills State Park near Hutchinson.

“We’re submitting a proposal next week,” Haskins said. “Sure we’re interested in it. It’s business, and it is in our home state.”
One cabin can cost about $40,000 to build, Stock said.

“The public is demonstrating the demand for these,” he said. “With the economy, more people are staying closer to home. A lot of people want to go camping, but they don’t want to sleep in a tent, don’t want to sleep on the ground, don’t have an RV, and this is a great option for them to be at the lake.”

Initially, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks officials enclosed several picnic areas to turn them into rustic cabins. But with campers seeking more amenities, the parks department entered a partnership in 2005 with Kansas Wildscape, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Wildscape borrows money for construction and cabin rental receipts help pay off the loans.

Meanwhile, the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center at Greenbush had a program at the Hutchinson prison teaching inmates construction skills by building homes for low-income families.

“It was the perfect fit,” Stock said. “From a correctional standpoint, it is educational. They are trying to teach these people a skill and the cabin is a byproduct of the education.”

Hutchinson Correctional Facility inmates began constructing the cabins in 2006.

One of about two dozen inmates in the program is Stephen Smallwood, who is serving a sentence for voluntary manslaughter at Hutchinson Correctional Facility.

He said being part of the program helps him control his anger.

“I have more confidence in myself,” the 51-year-old said. “I’m more ambitious. And it’s helped me stay mellow.”

The 20th cabin, which Smallwood helped build, goes to Milford Lake in May, said Tim Turner, the program’s lead instructor, employed through the Greenbush training program.

Inmates who go through the program graduate and receive national certification, he said.

Turner said about 80% of those in the program have never had a job. The first few months seem like a battle, but eventually that changes, he said.

“They start to love coming to work — seeing they’re accomplishing something,” he said.

The skills can come in handy after inmates leave prison.

“Inmates can walk into the job market and say, ‘Hey, I’m certified in these trades,”‘ Stock said. “They’re taking their families out to the state parks and telling them, ‘I worked on this cabin, I put in this cabinetry, I built this floor.’ They have a sense of ownership.”