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.

By Beth Botts

Photography by Bob Stefko

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Boot Camp gardens in ChicagoExcept 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.

“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.

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