Sheriff's boot camp goes green

August 14, 2009 (CHICAGO) The Cook County Sheriff's boot camp is designed to give young men who have made some mistakes a second chance. Organizers think getting them back to nature might also help get their lives back on track.

When thinking of boot camp, one might picture young men getting military-style training to get them into shape, but some of the detainees at the Cook County Sherriff's boot camp are also getting an unexpected assignment.

"Gardening? I'm thinking how can I do gardening in boot camp? I'm thinking maybe they would have us carrying logs or something, but not gardening," 18-year-old Joshua Blackwell said.

With guidance from staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the cadets tend a large-scale garden on the grounds. From sowing seeds to harvesting crops, the young men are doing it all.

"We're working with 20 guys right now and all 20 of them are enthusiastic. They want to learn more. They ask for homework. They're interested. They want to know," Angela Mason, of the Chicago Botanic Garden, said.

The 17- to 35-year-old cadets serve 18-week sentences with an additional eight months of supervision for crimes that are non-violent and non-sexual. Director Frank Johnson was instrumental in getting the gardening program started. He thinks the lessons learned will be a metaphor for life.

"When these guys start out with nothing and then grow something, it takes away from that whole idea of immediate gratification and it gives them a chance to see if they start out slowly and build upon something that they can be successful," Johnson said.

Eighteen-year-old Thomas Gray-Cole expects to be released in a few weeks and now wants to go to college. He says this experience is also helping him to envision larger possibilities.

"It's a community thing. We can all get together, get a vacant lot, plant some food and we're all as one now," Gray-Cole said.

Others believe more programs like this one on the outside could keep more young men from serving time on the inside.

"To me, it'll keep more kids off the street that's doing all the gangbanging and negative activities. It could be a learning activity for them just like it was for me," 18-year-old Arsenio Amerson said.

The gardening program is being funded by The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

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