CHASKA, Minn. — Bryan Skavnak teaches golf to all ages, so he’s used to hearing the question. He just phrases his answer a little differently when young kids inquire.
“Why does that school over there have barbed wire around it?” they’ll ask him, pointing across the driving range.
“Well,” Skavnak starts, “it’s not a school…”
Parker’s Lake Golf Center, less than 20 miles north of this week’s Ryder Cup venue, Hazeltine National, is on the site of the Adult Corrections Facility, a medium-security jail in the Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth. All the inmates are serving sentences of less than a year, mostly for low-level crimes like drug offenses and DWIs.
Owned and operated by Hennepin County, the modest property has a practice range and pitch-and-putt course. The maintenance staff includes at least two inmates, sometimes more. (College kids fill out the staff during the summer.) They mow greens, pick balls, topdress and landscape in return for $10 a day, which is one of the better-paying gigs for someone court ordered to sleep in a cell. The convicts can even bang a ball or two on the range — as long as no one is looking.
Skavnak, the center’s director of instruction since it opened in 1998 (and an author), is quick to say how helpful the inmates are in maintaining the grounds. He’s also seen his fair share of oddities.
One day, while Skavnak was giving a lesson, an inmate escaped the recreational area and bolted across the range just a few feet from Skavnak. The convict swiftly hopped a fence, jumped in a car and disappeared. He was caught a week later.
Another time an inmate serving time for a meth charge was out topdressing the range. Until he wasn’t. “Holy crap!” his college-aged co-worker barked, as Skavnak tells it. “He’s gone!” A week later the convict turned himself in at the county offices in downtown Minneapolis.
Then there was the time an inmate was working on the range, got hot and decided to cool off with a dip in the pond.
To be fair, these tales are outliers. They are in no way meant to suggest that Parker’s Lake patrons risk any kind of risky run-ins with inmates tending to the property. “Most of the guys are pretty normal,” Skavnak says. “They just did something dumb to get here.”
A small bucket of range balls will run you $6; green fees on the short course are $8. Lesson rates vary. The center attracts healthy lunchtime crowds, stays busy on the weekends and draws families on Sundays. It turns a profit.
To Skavnak, the facility is a second home. It was the brainchild of his father, John Skavnak, the correctional facility’s long-time warden. John started working at the jail as a part-timer out of college and worked his way up before retiring in 2007.
What is now the golf center was a soybean field until the late ‘90s. John Skavnak and a group of his colleagues wanted to do something with the land that would benefit both the public and the inmates and also generate revenue. All of them were golf nuts — for decades they played in a Tuesday evening league at Shamrock Golf Club in Corcoran, from senior correctional officers to unit supervisors to block supervisors — so they quickly warmed to the idea of a golf facility. Three years after opening the range, Parker’s Lake added the practice course, which some regulars jokingly dubbed Conviction Creek.
Bryan Skavnak, now 38, started playing in the league when he was 14. His mom would get him out of school early on Tuesdays by telling his teacher that he needed to see his parole officer. “It was all true,” he says, “because I would go to the course and there would be a parole officer playing, so I would see a parole officer.”
From the hitting bays on the range, the women’s adult corrections facility is due north; the men’s facility is to the east, just a lob wedge away. The Hennepin County 911 Emergency Communications Facility also is on site.
Parker’s Lake’s staffing is unusual around these parts but not unprecedented. A nine-hole course called The Ponds at Battle Creek, just outside St. Paul, employs crews of about eight or 10 from the Ramsey County Correctional Facility, although that’s a workhouse, not a jail. And Glen Lake Golf Course, a nine-holer in nearby Minnetonka, is on the grounds of Hennepin County Home School, a juvenile detention center. Its residents worked the grounds up until a few years ago.
Carolyn Marinan, a public relations officer for Hennepin County, says having the inmates work at the course gives both visiting golfers and those who live in the area a better understanding of some of the jail’s residents, who are “doing their time for bad judgment, mistakes — paying their debt to society,” she says.
“We hope community members see that the residents working the golf course are trying to be good neighbors,” Marinan says. “[They’re] trying to make the golf center the best business possible.”
Adds Skavnak: “It’s a great program for [the inmates]. It’s a good recreational facility for the city, and it’s a good PR move for the county.”
Call it a win-win-win. Some of the inmates on the Parker’s Lake crew need to learn how to work the land but others already have a green thumb. One staffer was a landscaper before a DWI offense put him behind bars, so he knew a thing or two about mowing greens and setting sprinkler heads. (There have even been a few returnees to the crew — convicts who landed back in jail after having being released.)
“There are a lot of guys who have skills in there that can be overlooked,” Skavnak says. “But if you find the right people, they can do a great job.”