Inmates learn how to grow food, garden

June 24, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Gardening has become a popular work detail within the last few years at the alternative sentencing program for young, non-violent offenders. The men are learning life lessons through gardening, kitchen duty and now composting. It's how some inmates are learning to live green and exploring a possible career path.

"We've designed the program so we'd be able to grow our own food. If we can grow our own food, we could demonstrate not only just to the guys who are working in the garden but to everybody what we can do," said Frank Johnson, Director of Programs, Cook County Sheriff's Boot Camp.

The Chicago Botanic Garden trains the inmates and manages the farm.

"When these guys start planting a seed and they notice that little sprout come above that soil, that's when they're like this really does work and I really can do this," said Joan Hopkins, garden crew leader, Chicago Botanic Garden.

The food that is grown is prepared and served in the mess hall. But that's not where the cycle ends. The facility recently installed a large earth tub to break down the food waste into compostable matter.

"After that's aged about three or four weeks, we move all of that into a pile over here and here we have a little more space and kind of let that stuff kind of finish up," said Mark Bigelow, compost crew leader, Chicago Botanic Garden.

Here is just on the other side of the barbed wire. The food waste is refined and turned into a high quality compost. It then goes back across the fence to be used as an additive to enrich the soil on the boot camp farm and other city gardens.

Brian Devitt and Nicholas Walker, two young men who were once inmates, were assigned to the garden detail. Since their release, they have both chosen agriculture as a career field and are now working the land as employees of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

"Actually, I like working here because I feel like this is like, natural," said Devitt.

"I think I'm setting an example for the people in boot camp because I'm showing them that they got a second chance," said Walker.

The boot campers recently started a farmers market. On Thursdays, they sell their produce on the south patio at the Cook County Jail. For more information on their programs or to tell us how you live green, go visit

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