Program lets inmates grow a green thumb

September 9, 2010 (CHICAGO)

For 17 years, the jail has had an alternative sentencing program for eligible inmates. It takes them outside the jail buildings and puts them in a garden, a place where both the crops and the inmates can flourish.

Twenty-seven current and former inmates at the Cook County Jail Have earned the right to be called master gardeners.

They did it in the garden on the jail property. Behind the guard towers and the razor wire, non-violent offenders are given a chance to grow...

To grow tomatoes, and eggplant, and watermelon, and basil. And to grow themselves.

"It really is serenity and peace of mind to step outside your body and realize you could've done things differently," said graduate James Harris.

"I'd like to thank those people for giving me a chance. Actually, they're the only police I've ever liked," said graduate Raymond Czochara.

While tending the garden the detainees learn skills and have the responsibility for whether their harvest succeeds or fails.

This year's crop is larger than ever. Some of the produce is donated. Some is sold to Chicago's top restaurants.

"It's quality-driven product first, and it's a great cause, we want to give back to the community," said Matthias Merges, Charlie Trotter's restaurants.

The point is to keep these men out of jail.

"For you guys still in here, it's good to see some of you, I hope I never see you again," said graduate David Beall.

"We don't want you back here," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. "We want you guys to become pillars of your community, the ones everyone says, 'Wow, look what he's done with his life, I want my son to be like him. ' "

"It's time to make a change now. It takes one person. I'm gonna change my life. I ain't gonna be a failure. I'm gonna run with it this time," said graduate Tobias Johnson.

And maybe -- this time -- is the time it works.

"You made us feel less like inmates and more like human beings. That was priceless," said Beall.

Since the program began, more than 500 inmates have participated, and they've harvested over 63 tons of food.

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