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 Chicago“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.

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