Sheriff’s Garden Program
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The mission of the Cook County Sheriff's Garden Project: A Patch of Paradise; is to increase the employability of inmates by providing opportunities to address offending behavior and acquire qualifications and work experience in a real working environment and routine. We aim to transform patterns of destructive behavior into conscious life enhancing choices.
History of the Garden Program
Since 1993, the Pre-Release center, a division of the Cook County Jail, has operated an extensive vegetable garden, using inmate labor, during the summer months. Over those same 17 years, we have shipped more than 50 tons of fresh produce to homeless shelters and other deserving non-profit organizations; involved more than 400 inmates in hands on learning in horticulture, from planting to harvesting; and , since the year 2000, officially certified more than 200 of those inmates as Master Gardeners following classroom instruction and on site testing.
Over that same period, the program has earned awards and honors from various governmental and nongovernmental civic groups and much recognition from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, all of the local network news programs and various specialty publications as well.
With the assistance of the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, inmates are taught a wide range of organic farming and gardening skills in a supportive, constructive, and positive environment; skills which are meant to enhance their prospects for gainful employment upon release. A plot of land within the Cook County Jail complex measuring approximately 30,000 square feet serves as the "classroom" for this unique rehabilitative horticultural program.
Recently, the garden achieved one of the program’s long time goals, through the erection of a greenhouse. A major constraint for expanding the successful program was the short upper Midwest growing season. Now, with the addition of the 1,500 square foot greenhouse, the program can produce vegetables and herbs for sale to the Chicago restaurant market. The program is well on its way to being self supporting. By providing minimum security, non-violent inmates the opportunity to learn the rudiments of business operations, including production, packaging, delivery, book keeping, marketing, they are better prepared upon their release from jail.
For 17 years the Cook County sheriff's garden program donated its produce to food banks and churches; while this still continues today, the challenge has always been how to make the program self sustaining..
The recent $149,000 addition of a greenhouse was financed by money generated from inmate commissary purchases and allows for gardening year-round. The inmates are now using their horticultural skills at growing smaller, high quality plants that are high in demand in the food industry. In 2010 the garden began selling to local restaurants, including Charlie Trotter's, The Publican, Blackbird and Avec.
Restaurants interested in a local source for micro-greens such as arugula, mustard greens and basil are finding just what they need inside the walls of the Cook County Jail!