The last place you expect to see a vegetable garden is behind tall fences topped off with razor wire, but at the Cook County Jail there is a 13 thousand square-foot vegetable garden grown by inmates. This vegetable garden is a joint effort by The Cook County Sheriff’s Department of Community Supervision and Intervention and The University of Illinois Extension. The inmates who work the garden are non-violent offenders serving time under county sentencing guidelines for cases involving drugs or a DUI.
The men who work the vegetable garden in this program learn about gardening from The University of Illinois Extension volunteers and are awarded Master Gardener certificates. “These guys take the same Master Gardener course that you or I would take,” RonWolford, Coordinator of the Chicago Master Gardener and Master Composter programs, told me back in April when we talked about the vegetable garden. A couple of weeks ago he invited me to the Harvest Festival scheduled for September 10th 2009. Even though I had images of MSNBC’s Lockdown running through my head and I was almost positive there would be a hostage situation, I attended.
I was told that I couldn’t take in a camera or cell phone onto the grounds of the jail, but was eventually allowed to bring my camera after explaining I was most likely invited to the harvest festival because I’m a garden blogger. I was escorted to an urban farm inside a large cage with a basketball court in one corner by a guard who asked me if I’d been there before. I explained to him that I had never had the pleasure of seeing the jail from the inside, either as a guest or as a visitor. Inside the vegetable garden I was greeted by Kenneth H. Trebilco, Director of the Pre-release Center, who talked to me about the Cook County Sheriff’s Vegetable Garden and the program. Since 1993 the garden has donated 54 tons of vegetables to local charities and is considered such a success that it is going to be expanded and a greenhouse is scheduled to be added to extend the growing season. “Putting in seeds and watching them grow; you can see the gang ‘thugness’ goes away-along with the stress of being incarcerated,” he told me. He noted how for many of the guys who go through the Master Gardener program at the jail this is the first time they’ve ever accomplished anything positive with their lives.
There was a graduation ceremony where the inmates who completed the program were given their Master Gardener certificates, many in front of family and friends. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart spoke to the inmates and reminded them that they had been given an opportunity and it was up to them to decide what they wanted to do with their lives.
He pointed out that the program’s success really depended on them because if they ended up in jail again it would be a failure. Jason Harris, one of the inmates, spoke on behalf of the group and said that the program helped him realize that they are not bad people, just people who made mistakes.
Once the speeches and certificates were handed out the guests were invited to eat food prepared for the event. While I was eating, it was interesting watching the inmates give tours of the vegetable garden to their families. Watching them pluck, a tomato, pepper or sunflower and put it in the hand of a mother or wife I started to feel bad that I was expecting the worst from them. Jason Harris was right. After all, if I had made a different choice in my life here or there I could be in the same spot they are in.
The program has a 56% success rate, thinking about the 44% who commit an offense that lands them back in jail solidified my belief that we can’t afford to bring an urban gardener to Chicago. I was joined at my table with two inmates who didn’t have family or friends in attendance and we talked a bit about what they could do with their Master Gardener certificates after they were released and what kind of urban agriculture groups in Chicago would be willing to work with them or what they cold do on their own farming Chicago’s brownfields.
When the event winded down I sat in on an interesting conversation at another table. It turns out that this vegetable garden and the harvest festival once got the attention of the Queen of street closings. Oprah never made it to the ceremony because it was scheduled for the morning of September 11th, 2001.
If you’d like to become a Master Gardener without having to go to jail see here. I made a short video that you can watch below.
Update: I received the following email from Michael Taff who is pictured above holding the peanuts, but whom I failed to identify when I first published this post.
My name is Mike Taff and I have been the garden coordinator for the last 7 seasons. Seven years ago I volunteered to take over this garden not knowing anything about gardening. I attended the same classes in horticulture as the inmates do, I received my Master Gardeners certificate and have loved every minute.I will give you some short facts. All the food we harvest is donated to soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries throughout Cook County.Since the inception of this garden back in 1993 we have donated over 52 tons of produce.The national recidivism rate is about 54%, The recidivism rate of inmates graduating from our garden program is 17%.Quite a savings of tax payers money. Every year we try to grow something extra ordinary. Last year it was peanuts this year it was giant pumpkins. As you shown in your video we do have a pumpkin that we believe will make it to 400 LBS.Today we broke ground for our new greenhouse. I believe it will be the first of its kind.The greenhouse will give us an opportunity to extend this program all year round.We hope to graduate double the amount we are doing. We also plan to package and sell what we grow to Chicago restaurateurs. Charlie Trotters has agreed to start purchasing our product next spring. Our goal is to make this program self sufficient and not use tax payers money.
It is really awesome that Charlie Trotter is getting involved. Without knowing about Charlie Trotter, earlier today I tweeted to Rick Bayless:
Lets hope he gets my tweet and does.
There was also this press release posted to the Cook County Sheriff’s website announcing that the jail garden has a record harvest this year. Congrats, to everyone involved in the garden.