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History of the Garden Program

Home > Departments > Department of Reentry and Diversion > Sheriff’s 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.

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