Harvest of Hope

The garden at Chicago’s Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp gives incarcerated men the skills to grow vegetables—and potentially new lives.

March 13, 2012

Except for the curls of razor wire, it’s a place of straight lines: the twelve -foot fences, the ranks and posture of young men marching in platoons along heat-baked concrete walks, the eaves of low-roofed barracks, the edges of raised beds.

But in those beds, zucchini vines sprawl with their usual disrespect for boundaries. New lettuce sprouts in a cheeky green. And the young men here, digging carrots, pulling weeds, harvesting bright leaves of chard, move easily and freely at their tasks.

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“It’s tranquil in gardens,” says 21-year-old Walter Ford. “You have a lot of time to think about things even when you’re working.” The soft-spoken Ford has grown far from where he began on Chicago’s chaotic, gang- and drug-ridden West Side, with no future except a prison term for dealing drugs. Two years later, he has a certificate in urban agriculture, a job, a college ID, and dreams of making a career out of growing things and feeding people.

The garden that helped him grow is managed by the Chicago Botanic Garden at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp, a tough 1-year rehabilitation program for young men who have pleaded guilty to nonviolent offenses.

Many jails and prisons have gardens where inmates work, usually as a privilege earned for good behavior. There’s a garden at nearby Cook County Jail, the grim home to 8,000 inmates, where boot-camp inmates return if they fail. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the Gardening Project in San Francisco and the Horticultural Society of New York’s GreenHouse project at New York City’s Rikers Island were among the first to link jail gardens to job training and employment in urban horticulture.

Most inmates arrive at the boot camp with little hope of any job. They come from neighborhoods where open space is a vacant lot glittering with broken glass. Their families are often dysfunctional, employment is as scarce as violence is common, and drug dealing is their default. Few finished high school and some can barely read. These young men have done bad things, and some have already done jail time. The boot camp is an attempt to give them another choice before they are entirely lost to prison and the streets.  

A young man choosing boot camp instead of jail isn’t taking the easy way out. It’s 4 months of military-style discipline; hours of daily drill and work, followed by 8 months of probation. But he also gets drug treatment, counseling, help toward earning a general equivalency diploma, vocational training, and job-placement assistance.  

Inmates compete for a handful of spots on the garden work detail, but gardening isn’t the initial draw; being outdoors offers  relief from the pressure of the barracks.

“I thought it would be a nice thing to be outside, a place to get away,” says inmate Tywon Smith. “I’m surprised to find myself liking gardening.”

Because when a man plants a seed and sees it sprout, cares for a plant, eats food he helped to grow, something can happen. Learning a new idea and then going outdoors and feeling that idea unfold in his own hands can change a spirit.

“They are learning to establish a vision,” says Frank Johnson, director of programs for the boot camp. “Many of them have never had a plan. They’ve acted on impulse or just gone along or carried a gun because they never thought ahead. With the garden, they are learning to take responsibility. When they see something grow, they see a future.”  

After lifetimes of fast food, many don’t know where a carrot comes from, says garden coordinator Joan Hopkins. But soon, many ask to sample every new root and green they encounter.  

In teams of two or three, with drill instructors standing by, the inmates dig in compost, sow seeds, harvest, help research and plan next season’s crops, or build hoop houses or new beds.

The transitional job each inmate is required to seek while on probation reinforces the basic lessons of the boot camp: keeping yourself under control, having a goal, staying focused, being polite. For some inmates, it’s their first-ever paycheck. And a few earn it in a garden.

On the suburban corporate campus of Kraft Foods, 26 miles north, a swath of lawn has been cut away to make room for pear trees and raised beds of tomatoes, Swiss chard, and peppers. Working there last summer was 17-year-old Aaron Serrano, who had spent time in juvenile detention and jail before he entered the boot camp after pleading guilty to armed robbery. “I didn’t have much going for me, no skills or anything,” he says.

He helped create this new garden to raise produce for food pantries with two other boot-camp graduates, earning $9.50 an hour. They often work with employee volunteers such as Kraft dietitian Lynn O’Grady. “You can tell they really enjoy being out here,” O’Grady says of the former inmates. “They’re friendly,” Serrano says of the volunteers, many of whom, like him a few months ago, have little experience gardening. “I like to help them learn.”

The former inmates are under the firm but fatherly hand of Rafael Arredondo, a former steelworker. He teaches about good soil and fish emulsion, Japanese beetles and squash bugs, respect and motivation, arriving on time and staying on task.

Like Hopkins, Arredondo works for Windy City Harvest, a program of the botanic garden. They are graduates of its sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture training program. Windy City Harvest helped begin the 1-acre boot-camp garden in 2009, with funding from the county, the botanic garden, and foundations. Of the 15,000 pounds of produce harvested each year, a quarter goes to charities or farmers’ markets and the rest to the mess hall.

 On one side of the camp, beyond the razor wire, freight trains rumble; on the other, the roof of Cook County Jail is visible above the weedy trees. The raised vegetable beds, filled with clean soil and compost, were essential, considering the contaminants that might lurk from the site’s industrial past. With organic practices and plentiful labor, the garden produces tomatoes, lettuce, okra, carrots, beans, eggplant, corn, and many other crops. And, perhaps, farmers.

Walter Ford, Darius Jones, 20, and Thomas Kelly, 30, are the first former boot-camp inmates to graduate from the Windy City Harvest training, earn certificates, and move into jobs. For 6 months, they took classes, learning about the science and business of organic gardening and farming. Then they spent 3 months working on projects including farmers’ markets, community gardens, and composting yards.

Ford comanaged a 75-by-130-foot community garden not far from the street corner where he used to sell drugs. The members of his former gang didn’t bother him. “They know that’s not what I’m into now,” he says. Ford enjoyed interacting with the community gardeners who had growing space within the garden’s wrought iron fence and helping area neighbors who stopped by for advice.

He lives with his grandparents and has expanded their backyard garden. But now his sights are wider than the neighborhood. He is enrolled in community college and hopes to become an advocate for urban agriculture. “I want to be at the forefront,” he says. And he’s working full-time at a local foods distribution company.

Classmate Jones had spent 15 months in jail before a judge gave him a chance at the boot camp after an arrest for carjacking. Now he’s enrolled in community college and working for Windy City Harvest. Kelly works for an aquaponics firm.

Yet for all the buzz over urban agriculture, jobs are scarce. Corrections experts also warn against imagining that the experience of a garden can, by itself, save anyone. About three-quarters of inmates successfully complete the 1-year boot camp program, and up to 5 years later 65 percent have not been convicted of another felony, according to Johnson. That compares to the 45 percent of former prisoners nationwide and 51 percent in Illinois who are re-arrested within 3 years of leaving prison. The retired Marine colonel says, “We have had great success with those who participate in this garden program.”  

There are no statistics on how working in a garden affects inmates’ chances of changing their lives. Angela Mason, who oversees both the boot-camp garden and Windy City Harvest as director of community gardening for the botanic garden, says the ones who succeed are “the guys who are just tired of looking over their shoulder. They’re done with that. They don’t want to look back.”    

“I think this is a population with a lot to offer, and I think they’re overlooked,” she says. “A majority of the young men we work with in the boot camp are really incredible. They just need some guidance, and a sense of community and a feeling of being part of something.” Like a garden.