EL DORADO, Kan. — Stop to compliment a groundskeeper at one of the litter-free, manicured parks in this central Kansas town and chances are you will find yourself talking to a convicted robber or thief.
The same thing could happen at El Dorado State Park alongside the big federal reservoir just northeast of town, or at one of the seven immaculate highway rest areas in the region.
Grounds and building maintenance are two of the primary chores handled by the 96 men at the minimum security El Dorado Honor Camp situated on 31 acres just below El Dorado Lake. Work crews also keep 2 1/2 miles of grassy spaces along an interstate highway in Wichita clean and mowed. And they work in cemeteries, paint and remodel churches and do a variety of other jobs for government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
"They've really been an asset," said Richard Porter, city director of public utilities. "It's just been an excellent program for the city."
Maj. Harold Samuels, security chief for the honor camps at El Dorado and Toronto, the only such camps in the state, said: "We want to help folks do things they wouldn't normally be able to do because of budget and manpower limitations."
Crews Save Money
The crews have saved taxpayers from 29% to 84% of the cost of some state projects, according to a legislative audit. When the north guard tower had to be moved at the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, for instance, inmate workers did it for $14,500, about 16% of what would have been charged by contractors. Kansas Department of Transportation officials save about $545,000 a year, or 95% of the cost of maintaining the roadside and rest areas the inmates handle.
Crews from the El Dorado and Toronto camps are expected to provide more than 300,000 man-hours of labor this year. They are paid about $1 a day.
For about 60 years, Kansas had no inmate labor force outside prison walls, said Gary Rayl, the Kansas Department of Corrections' director of honor camps. He said that in the late 1800s, farmers, businessmen and corrupt officials abused inmate labor programs, forcing the Legislature to ban them.
In 1961, the Legislature reinstated honor camps. Mobile camps were used for several years. The first permanent facility was erected in Toronto in 1965, housing 61 inmates. The El Dorado camp was built in 1982, housing 33 inmates when it opened.
Inmates Accepted in Town
The inmates have been accepted as part of the town, Rayl said. Their basketball and softball teams compete in the city's league. For the last two Decembers, El Dorado businessmen have put on a "Christmas With Friends" steak dinner for the prisoners.,
"I think the community feels for the most part those inmates are people who have worked hard to earn their status at the honor camp," said Marjorie Harcrow, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce.
The first year the honor camp was open, seven walked away. But no inmates have escaped in the past three years, Rayl said.
However, in December, two inmates looked inside an unlocked county garage and found two pickup truckloads of marijuana plants that had been seized as evidence. They tried to sell the plants, but the buyers turned out to be two undercover FBI agents.
Rayl said inmates are carefully screened and must have two years or less left on their sentences. Sex offenders and those with any record of violent behavior or serious rule violations are ineligible. Those who refuse to obey the rules or work are sent back to prison.
The honor camp near El Dorado has a picnic and playground area for inmates and their visitors. Inside, inmates live in dormitory areas with cubicles separated by chest-high partitions.
The guards are unarmed.
Rayl said one of the program's aims is to teach prisoners good work habits.
Teaching Job Skills
"Contrary to what people think, inmates like to work and like to accomplish things," he said. "But you'd be surprised at the number of young men we get out here--22 or 23 years old--who have never held a job. So we teach them good work skills and habits."
One inmate helping construct an animal shelter stopped mixing cement long enough to praise the honor camp system.
"This is wonderful. This is one of the greatest things ever to happen to a penitentiary," said Jessie Simpson, 54, a Houston resident who was convicted of aggravated robbery in Wichita.
"You're not just put someplace and forgotten about."