By Cloee Cooper
Surrounded by thick concrete walls and barbed wire fences lies the Cook County Sheriff’s Urban Farming Initiative, a place where jail inmates grow vegetables and herbs which eventually make their way to Chicago’s trendy restaurants and farmers’ markets.
The program has operated with inmate labor since 1994. Spanning 130,000 square feet, and located within the Cook County Jail facility, the garden is the size of about three football fields. This past season, inmates grew 10,000 pounds of vegetables – ranging from carrots, kale and zucchini to cilantro and chioggia beets.
Every season 30 inmates participate in the program and earn $2 a day to learn gardening, grow vegetables and prepare produce to be sold. Cook County is the largest jail in the country, with over 8,000 inmates, and the Urban Farming Initiative is one of several jobs at the jail. Other jobs include sanitation, work in the kitchen, snow removal, grass cutting, cleaning dog cages and doing laundry. The pay range for all jobs is from $1 to $5 a day, according to jail officials.
Urban farms in jails and prisons have become more widespread across the country, ranging from San Quentin State Prison’s Planting Justice program to the Missouri Department of Corrections’ Restorative Justice Garden program.
Cook County’s program was modeled after The Greenhouse program at Rikers Island Correctional Center in New York, said Kerry Wright, a deputy director who runs the Cook County initiative.
“Initially we saw it as a form of therapy,” said Wright.
“When I started, the program was really small and there was no profit at all being earned from the farm.”
The initiative initially relied on tax dollars. But after Wright approached vendors in Chicago to sell the produce, she was able to get some high end restaurants on board and expand the program. This past year, the farm earned $12,000. She says all proceeds go back into running the farm and other enrichment programs at the jail.
Wright said it was difficult to convince vendors that the produce was high quality at first. But once she gave vendors a tour of the garden, they realized the program was serious, and more restaurants signed on. Now, “restaurants will pay organic produce rates,” she said.
“The restaurants we have on board are amazing people,” she added. “They are really wanting to give back to their communities, including hiring our guys when they get out.”
It is difficult to expand the program at this point because the criteria for inmate participation are strict. They must be minimum security inmates, she said, and the jail must keep the flow of participants steady and security intact.
Sopprafina Market, which prides itself on offering downtown customers local and sustainable options, purchases produce grown at the jail.
“We have a pretty high standard of what we use and the products are always coming in really nice,” said Tim Muellemann, the area manager of Sopprafina Market. “When they have 60 pounds of roma tomatoes, I say, ‘I will take that all.’”
Muellemann said for him, it is more than just about the quality of the produce. “It’s a feel good for us because it’s a program that everyone should know about. It’s giving them a purpose there.”
Wright said the farm is the nearest source for locally grown high quality produce in Chicago. Produce from the garden is sold on average for $1.15 a pound, which is commensurate with bulk organic produce prices.
Cosmo Goss, chef de cuisine at The Publican, spoke highly of the produce he prepares from the jail.
“We love working with the program. They grow custom veggies like chioggia beets, which are great! I also love their cucumbers, but I’ve never met a cucumber I didn’t like,” said Goss. “I believe the program is huge for people that want to learn something beyond just doing the labor.”
While the urban farm program is regarded generally as a positive initiative in the corrections field, it has its critics.
“We cannot forget that while the 13th Amendment forbids slavery, it also created the space for slavery to be re-invented by allowing those ‘duly convicted’ [of a crime] to still be required to work without compensation,” said attorney Todd Belcore, Executive Director of Social Change, a nonprofit that seeks to turn problems into progress and concrete change via film, training and policy advocacy. “The unfortunate, ugly truth is that too many inmate work programs across this nation take advantage of that exception and exploit men and women with past mistakes.”
Though Belcore distinguished between compulsory prison work and elective programs like the Cook County Sheriff’s initiative, he said prisons and jails are exploiting inmates for cheap labor.
“At the end of the day, the sheriff is trying to get to the root cause,” conceded Belcore. “He is trying to turn the jail into a place where people can get quality workplace and development skills, but you need to be mindful of the low compensation and the conditions people are in.”