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 ChicagoWalter 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.

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