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Inmates reap fruits of labor at Cook County Jail's garden

Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Jason George

Most gardens are protected by a ring of string and sometimes a scarecrow.

But with razor wire, armed guards and closed-circuit cameras, the garden at the Cook County Jail is a bit more secure for keeping things out--and in.

The jail celebrated the largest harvest ever from its garden Tuesday, with certificates for the detainees who have toiled the soil and a meal prepared with the fruits of their labor.

The 12-year-old program is run for detainees that are part of the Sheriff's Department of Community Supervision and Intervention system, which largely consists of drug offenders.

Louie Johnson, 31, was all smiles at the ceremony, wearing an orange inmate cap that didn't exactly match the standard farmer straw hat.

"My grandmother had a garden, but I haven't worked it since I was a kid," Johnson said.

He said a group of about 12 detainees visited the garden every morning to pick weeds, hoe and pull crops for a few hours.

Jail officials said more than 30 detainees participated in the program this year, with some leaving as they were transferred out of the jail or released.

"We couldn't do it without teamwork," said a 40-year-old man who gave his name as Kenny.

While some vegetables were used to feed guests, detainees and guards Tuesday, most of the 6,000 pounds of food is being donated to two Chicago nursing homes, said Ron Wolford, an educator with the University of Illinois Extension program, which partners with the jail on the garden.

Detainees said the meal of roasted peppers, bean salad, hot dogs and much more was a nice break from the usual bologna sandwich and Kool-Aid.

Crops in the 10,000-square-foot garden include tomatoes, squash, four varieties of peppers, eggplant, cabbage and several others.

Pumpkins and their vines climb the fences surrounding the garden.

"They're trying to escape," joked Bill Wallace, the executive director of the community program at the jail.

Jokes aside, the detainees' experience bears little similarity to those of the maximum-security inmates, who are housed in buildings that loom over the garden.

Detainees live in dormitory settings with no bars on the windows, they said. And they are all awaiting trial or serving short sentences, Wallace said.

They also must have no previous felony convictions.

While most of the detainees were awarded certificates of appreciation, Victor Velez was the only one present Tuesday who was commended for completing the Master Gardener program, a 60-hour course given through the University of Illinois.

Velez, 35, said he'll use his skills to help his family on their farm in Puerto Rico, although he and others said the detainees were their family for now.

"That's my brother today," David Rodriguez, 39, said pointing at Velez, who nodded.

Rodriguez said the garden experience allowed them to get to know their fellow detainees while giving them pride and peace.

"You get a little sense of freedom," he said. "It gives us our dignity back after we lost it in the madness."



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