I think I’m one of the only people to say that as I entered the gates of Chicago’s Cook County jail, I was bubbling with excitement. I entered voluntarily, of course, because I was given permission to tour the jail’s organic urban garden, farmed entirely by inmates. Under the oversight of Sheriff Thomas Dart and coordinators Kerry Wright and Mike Taft, this garden has brought what Taft calls “a patch of serenity” amidst the chaos of a prison. It’s so serene you can hear the birds chirping; a rare gold finch perched atop the high barbed wire fence as I soaked it all in. Besides being a place for therapy and reflection for inmates, the garden provides job training, health education, and most importantly, a solution to our increasingly crowded and expensive jail system.
The farm was founded in 1993 after inspiration by a San Francisco urban garden/substance abuse program. It
started as two tiny plots and all the food went to soup kitchens in the area. When they first started selling to local restaurants three years ago, people doubted the quality of food produced by inmates. But a team from Charlie Trotter’s, one of their first clients, came to the garden to inspect the produce, and determined that it was as good if not better than other local farms. Then this Chicago Tribune video article reported within an hour of harvest, the veggies could be in a kitchen, still warm from the sun. Top restaurants like Publican and Blackbird soon caught on. The garden now sells at three markets (including the Daley Plaza), and is still able to donate 800 pounds of food a day to Chicago’s Greater Food Depository!
So, here’s how they do it. In a twelve-week horticulture education program geared towards inmates who are on their way out, both men and women receive a crash course in gardening and environment. They spend two or three days per week enthusiastically practicing their trade in the field, where they learn to grow (and taste) food they’ve often never even heard of – from beets to giant pumpkins, from lemon basil to endangered species cultivated in partnership with the Audobon society. Upon completion of the course, the inmates experience what it’s like to be an integral part of a start-to-finish cycle, from seed to fruit. Not only that, they exit with a certificate that helps them get a job and start a new life that’s as fresh as the veggies they pick.
Taft encourages farmers “go out and do something good” after they graduate, such as start their own gardens in their communities, eat healthier, and teach their kids to make good decisions. Because chances are, if good choices are made about food, then things will ripple outwards positively. Taft can testify to this – he sees graduates leave, and the majority do not return. None of it would be possible without Sheriff Dart’s vision to “greenify” and develop the prison into a place where inmates can serve, reflect, contribute, and grow. Environmental solutions to social issues like Dart’s remind me of a few other farms I’ve visited this summer – Growing Home and Loud Grade Produce Squad are two that come to mind. Although many farms across the U.S. such as this urban rehabilitation garden in Detroit have big plans for inner-city agriculture, none are quite like this quiet place among chaos. On days like these at the jail, Taft tells the workers, “This is your canvas. Now paint me a Rembrandt. If you can do this, you can do anything.”
Cheers to planting your own success (and being able to eat it, too!),