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Inmate-Built Cabins Filling Minnesota State Parks

July 6, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Prison inmates building 12- by 16-foot cabins are helping to bring more people to Minnesota state parks, filling a niche between tent camping and RVs. The spare $50-a-night cabins mean not having to pitch a tent and offer the security of a roof overhead, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

The tiny camper cabins are performing as expected: All 73 in the state parks were booked for the July 4th holiday and fill up every weekend, as well.

“Everybody likes them. … We don’t have to do much promotion at all,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Parks Director Courtland Nelson.

The DNR hopes to eventually add at least 70 more cabins, including six at the new Lake Vermilion State Park in northern Minnesota and a few as overnight shelters on some of the state’s longer trails.

“We will keep moving on it,” Nelson said. “They are very, very popular. I can’t see any scenario where we would be laying that aside.”

Mary Jean Fenske of Shoreview credits the cabins with keeping her family’s camping tradition going.

Her two teenage sons and her husband have had enough of the weather surprises and discomfort of tents. But they are still willing to rough it for a few nights in the woods — if they can bunk in a cozy camper cabin.

They like the tent-like togetherness of the single room with four bunk beds, the bug-free screened front porch, and the heat, light and small deck. “My family would be dropping off if we didn’t have the camper cabins,” Fenske said.

The cabins have neither kitchens nor bathrooms, so some camping challenges — such as building fires and cooking outside — remain.

“It makes it feel like you are doing something that is out of the ordinary; you’re kind of coping a little bit with your trip to your biffy,” Fenske said.

Although about 40 older cabins date to the 1990s, the new units, with electric heat and light and screened porches, were built with $2 million allocated by the legislature in 2006. About 30 of the newer cabins were placed in state parks in 2008 at a cost of $31,500 each for a cedar-shake style and about $34,000 for a log cabin style, said Deb Boyd, park development consultant with the DNR.

Inmates build skills

Behind the popular cabins is another success story: The new-style cabins are built by inmates on-site at the Red Wing prison through a Hennepin County program called Sentencing to Service Homes. From Red Wing, the cabins are trucked to parks. The crews also work for Habitat for Humanity.

About 30 inmates a year are chosen for the carpentry program, which trains them in skills they can use to get a job when they leave prison. The program also involves inmates from Shakopee, Stillwater and Lino Lakes prisons.

“If you work with them and teach them skills, they don’t come back,” said Joe Witt, senior administrative manager for Hennepin County.

“Most of the participants have never had a job and they have a ninth-grade education. We kind of make it like a second chance.” Only 8% of male participants wind up returning to prison once freed, Witt said, and only 2% of female participants do.

Tim Mickle, an inmate at the Red Wing prison, said he had to go through three interviews before being selected to join one of the crews. In the past two years he has helped to build five cabins. “It’s nice leaving every day to go to a job,” Mickle said. “We learn a lot about carpentry and construction. It’s been very beneficial for me because I plan on continuing this when I get out.”

He is proud of the cabins and has written to his children that they will go to a park and see what their father has been doing in his time away from them. “It gives you a real sense of accomplishment,” Mickle said.

The Red Wing crew is about to start building a cabin that the DNR may display at the Minnesota State Fair. Two more are on order by the Three Rivers Park District for Elm Creek Park Reserve.

Three Rivers already has four of the cabins at Baker Park Reserve. They are booked every weekend through Labor Day, said associate superintendent Tom McDowell. “It’s a way of ensuring that you can have a good camping experience,” even if it rains, he said.

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