Cook County Sheriff's Garden: A Patch of Paradise
On just about any day, weather permitting, groups of men work in the garden at 3026 South California Avenue, pulling weeds, watering flowers, and harvesting vegetables.
Some of them, only a few weeks before, were shooting heroin and stealing car parts to support their drug habits.
The men are some of the 200 inmates of a Cook County Sheriff's Office pre-release center who have helped tend a 6,000 square foot patch of soil within the Cook County Jail complex. The garden is part of a program designed to rehabilitate non-violent drug offenders while providing food for Chicago's poor and the homeless.
The inmates who work in the garden are drug offenders involved in a treatment program run by the Department of Community Supervision and Intervention (DCSI), a department in the Sheriff's Office. The DCSI facility and the garden are within the sprawling county jail complex, but are separate from the main jail, where prisoners accused of violent crimes are housed. Some of the DCSI inmates are awaiting trial, some are awaiting sentencing and others are released after their time in the DCSI facility.
Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan says the garden is an example of the type of program that is needed to help inmates stay out of jail once they are released.
The DCSI community vegetable garden was first planted by DCSI inmates in the spring of 1993 with help from University of Illinois Extension Urban Gardening Program.
Extension staff envisioned the garden as a therapeutic project for DCSI inmates, giving them a chance to develop their social skills, take pride in their work and contribute to the community by growing food for the needy.
The garden now grows a variety of fresh vegetables including zucchini, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, turnips, onions, mustard greens, and collards. Extension staff provide weekly technical assistance to the gardeners.
Much of the produce grown at the garden is sold to a south side food distribution site operated by the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. This year more than a ton of zucchini valued at $1,400 has been grown and sold. Through an initiative called the Farmer's Market Nutrition Program, WIC participants can redeem their food coupons for freshly grown vegetables. Money earned from the sale of vegetables goes to support the garden.
In addition, some of the produce from the DCSI garden is donated to Inspiration Cafe, a restaurant for the homeless in the Uptown community.
According to Ed Simmons, DCSI Director of Support Services, the fact that the garden feeds hungry people motivates many of the DCSI gardeners. "I've had some of the gardeners say to me that the main reason they're involved in this project is because they are helping hungry children," he said. "They tell me they'll put up with the bugs and the hard work as long as they're helping the babies and the kids."
"Our goal is to connect the DCSI gardeners to other Extension horticulture programs for employment and job training," says Ron Wolford, Extension Urban Horticulture & Environment Educator. "They have valuable experience that can help them get employment in other horticulture-related programs."
"The key is partnerships," says James D. Oliver, regional director of Extension. "The University is a valuable resource to our whole community, because it works with the government, schools, and other groups. That's what outreach and the public service mission of the University is all about."
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